New N.O. restaurant has a different read on Sicilian flavors and a different approach to wine

A visit to the new Marcello’s Restaurant & Wine Bar in New Orleans’ CBD can pack in a lot impressions before the food even arrives.

The space was, for many years, Le Chat Noir cabaret, and despite its conversion into an upscale restaurant, it may still stir memories of the stage for local theater patrons. Then there’s the approach to the wine program. You browse retail racks arrayed around the room and tote a bottle back to the table yourself, bringing to mind a wine shop more than a wine bar.

But once meals get underway, the persistent impression for me is more about the rich variety of regional custom and family tradition behind Italian cooking. The menu at Marcello’s is unmistakably Sicilian, which is the same taproot for local Creole Italian cooking. The iteration here, however, is markedly different, perhaps closer to the Old Country source material and definitely more akin to the style of Italian American cooking that thrives in the northeast.

The progression of a recent dinner helps set the scene. First, grilled, long-stem artichokes ($15), with lemony aioli setting off their natural brightness; then a panznella salad ($21), big enough to split, glistening with vinaigrette over whole lobster claws and big chunks of meat; and finally spaghetti alle vongole ($22), with buttery broth and garlic whipped around a clatter of clams, for a standout dish that’s rarely seen in New Orleans.

Still, this restaurant has a New Orleans story. As proprietor Gene Todaro Jr. tells the tale, his family arrived in New Orleans from Palermo, Sicily, in 1961. His uncle, Marcello Todaro, moved to Lafayette in the late 1970s to attend college but left school and instead opened an Italian restaurant. In a show of maternal devotion, his mother, Rosa, followed him to Lafayette and became the driving force of the kitchen.

This first rendition of Marcello’s grew to three restaurants, but when the oil crash of the 1980s ravaged the south Louisiana economy the family converted their eateries to wine shops, which Todaro explains they could run with far fewer employees (in New Orleans, his family still runs Vieux Carre Wine & Spirits and Elio’s Wine Warehouse). A few years back, he and his father, Gene Todaro Sr., started reviving the restaurant end of the family business, first in Lafayette and then this spring with their latest, Marcello’s, in the former cabaret.

Chef Jason Lambert runs the kitchen, executing a menu from Blakely Kymen, executive chef for both restaurants. They make room for a few contemporary turns. For instance, a griddle-seared redfish fillet ($25), set over saffron-scented butter sauce and crowned with broad ribbons of zucchini and squash “fettuccine,” was as composed as any modern bistro dish.

But the heart and soul of the menu, and evidently the stuff that’s kept the dining room busy from the start, are old family recipes for straightforward Sicilian classics. That means veal Marsala ($17), a lunch entrée, glazed with a commingling of wine, butter and stock; all-beef meatballs ($5 as an add-on), soft, rich, mid-sized orbs in a thick but very smooth red sauce; and dense, not-too-sweet cream cake ($7) that channels an Italian wedding quicker than a Louis Prima sing-along.

Others are more distinctive to this kitchen. The Norma ($28), for instance, covers a veal cutlet under soft, oily cubes of eggplant and a lip-smacking sauce merging tomato and demi glace with the salty savor of anchovies. The onslaught of garlic and red pepper delivered via linguini in the shrimp pepate ($24) should be reserved only for the bold, while the tritone ($29) is a more delicate seafood pasta, with perhaps half a lobster mixed with shrimp and very large crabmeat knuckles in cream sauce with a dash of sherry.

The wine selection runs to some 600 labels, and beyond by-the-glass options there’s no list. A waitress will make suggestions if you want to stay at your table, but otherwise picking a wine means perusing the racks, sometimes squeezing yourself around other tables in the midst of their dinners. The pay-off is in the price, however, with mark-ups closer to a corkage fee than the restaurant standard. That makes Marcello’s a good place to branch out a bit with higher-end wines, or maybe just get a second bottle to keep the evening going. With hearty Italian food on the table, that’s an impulse that cuts across a lot of different traditions.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.