If it’s Monday, it must be Italy

Monday can be a black hole for restaurant dining in New Orleans, since many of the city’s eateries are closed that day.

And while most of us are content with a big pot of red beans on Monday night, sometimes the urge to have an elegant dining experience can’t be contained. When that happens on a Monday, pickings can be slim.

At Martinique Bistro, however, Mondays have recently become a special day for Big Easy diners looking to fill that early week void.

This past January, restaurateurs Cristiano Raffignone and Kelly Barker decided to occupy their Magazine Street restaurant, which normally lies dormant on Mondays, with a one-day-a-week-only menu from Cristiano Ristorante, his Northern Italian-inspired eatery in Houma.

To call the Monday menu a “pop-up,” would be easy, but not entirely accurate. Instead, it’s more of a traveling showcase of the cuisine at Cristiano Ristorante and its chef, Lindsay Mason, whose menu blends the best of the “two boots”: Louisiana and Italy.

Of course, Louisiana has a storied Italian heritage, and it shows on our plates.

However, if you’re looking for hot sausage, rich “Sunday gravy” and meatball parmigiana — all derived from the culinary traditions of Southern Italy, particularly Sicily and Naples — don’t look at Cristiano Ristorante.

Instead, the restaurant takes its driving influence from the tables of Northern Italy, as Raffignone hails from Liguria, known as the “Italian Riviera,” in the coastal northwest region of the country.

Said Mason, “It’s a bit of a lighter style of Italian cuisine — the Southern dishes tend to be much heaver — and the Northern style matches my style as a chef much better. I’m influenced a lot by Caribbean cuisine: bright colors and crisp flavors.”

The chef, who caravans each week with his kitchen crew from Houma to New Orleans for the special night, is eager to share his love of both New Orleans and Italian traditions on his menu.

A recent meal began with his take on charbroiled oysters, a dish that seems almost ubiquitous in Big Easy seafood haunts these days.

In his twist on the favorite, Mason tops his oysters with Grana Padano cheese imported from Italy (similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano), roasted garlic and red bell peppers.

“We roast the peppers over an open flame until charred, then remove the skins. It gives the dish a great, tangy sweetness ... and also adds a subtle smokiness as well,” the chef said.

A second dish was an elegant, delightfully unexpected plate of venison tartare, served with hand-cut, twice-cooked pommes frites drizzled with truffle oil.

Said Mason, “With every menu I put out, I feel that I have to put something raw on it. Be it scallop crudo, beef carpaccio, tuna or anything along those lines, I just love that.

“One day I was playing around in the kitchen and I decided to make a tartare using venison instead of beef, and I instantly saw how much better it was, a bigger, bolder depth of flavor.”

Mason relishes his chance to cook for New Orleanians, who he feels tend to be adventurous diners willing to bet on untraditional or exotic fare.

“People in Houma can be a little reluctant to step out of their comfort zones,” he said, “so sometimes it takes a while for a dish like venison tartare to catch on, but eventually they come to love it, and they enjoy that we’ve introduced them to something new and delicious.”

The next couple of courses veered into familiar territory — pasta, without which any Italian-inspired menu would be sorely lacking. Mason and his staff take not a small amount of pride that almost all of their pasta is made by hand, in house, according to tradition.

A dish of delectably soft gnocchi, served with pancetta, roasted butternut squash, wilted mustard greens and a light cream sauce brought me instantly back to my days living in Italy as a student.

“It’s delicate,” Mason said, “but such a comforting dish.”

Not to rest on a single pasta entree, Mason next served a generous bowl of perfectly al dente pappardelle with a slow-roasted lamb ragu and charred peppers. “It’s a classic Italian dish, with a ragu that’s flavorful but deep, so it stands up to the pappardelle. We really want to highlight the pasta, and how it works well with a big, rich sauce like that,” he said.

“It’s hard to find a restaurant that serves perfectly al dente pasta, because it’s a very hard thing to do right. There’s a window of about 20-30 seconds where the pasta is either over- or underdone, and it’s a tricky thing to master.”

Mason also proudly notes that he pulls the peppers, which appear on a number of his dishes, from the restaurant’s own garden in Houma.

“It’s mostly herbs,” said the chef, “but we have some vegetables as well. We have chocolate habaneros, ghost chiles, cayenne, jalapeños, bird’s eye chiles. Also red, yellow and green bell peppers.”

The meal concluded with a traditional, creamy tiramisu.

However, New Orleans diners will still have to wait for the restaurant to bring in its beloved, house-made gelatos, in adventurous flavors including chocolate cayenne, fior di latte, and chocloate-covered bacon, as well as sorbettos ranging from blackberry-rosemary, lemon-lemongrass, to peach habanero and more.

Eventually, Mason, Raffignone and Barker hope to establish a permanent shop here.

Said the chef, “We’re testing the waters with the Monday menu right now, but we’d love to be here every night in New Orleans, cooking this type of cuisine. We don’t know quite how far a full restaurant is, but it’s certainly in the plans.”

The sooner the better, as long as they’re still open on Mondays.