Cibugnu goes beyond red sauce to dish up progressive Sicilian on St. Charles Avenue

New Orleans is no stranger to Italian cuisine. Visitors often find it surprising that the same restaurants serving up the best seafood po-boys also specialize in spaghetti marinara, veal parmesan or spicy sausage with peppers.

This, of course, is the product of generations of immigrants from southern Italy — particularly Sicily and Naples — who brought to the Crescent City the traditional cuisine of that part of the country, including meat-centric dishes heavily topped with a long-simmered red sauce known affectionately as “Sunday Gravy,” the kind you tend to see someone’s “nonna” cooking up in a mob movie.

The crew at Cibugnù, the newly opened Italian restaurant in the Central Business District, are looking to go beyond the red sauce, offering a more progressive version of Sicilian fare.

According to head chef Octavio Ycaza, a veteran of Domenica, Rio Mar and Tony Moran’s, “My understanding of Sicily is that it’s a lot like Louisiana and New Orleans. We’re definitely part of America here, just like Sicily is part of Italy. But Sicily has also been one of the most-occupied and colonized places in Europe, and, like New Orleans, it’s taken on all of those influences in its food, whether it was the Moors, the French or the Spanish. And we’re hoping to show that here.”

Ycaza, an Ecuadorian native who began spending time in New Orleans in 1989 — when he had his first hamburger, praline, Roman Candy and Hansen’s sno-ball — hooked up with manager Chris Timpone when the restaurant was formerly Leonardo’s and brought many of his cooks from Tony Moran over to reinvigorate the menu and concept.

From a first taste, Cibugnù — a portmanteau of the Italian words for food (“cibo”) and song (“sogno”) and pronounced “chee-BOO-noo” — is bringing something unique to the Big Easy. The menu seems relatively straightforward: antipasti, wood-fire pizzas, pasta dishes and main courses standard for any Italian joint. However, Cibugnù’s refined take on these standards is anything but ordinary.

A recent meal at Cibugnù started, naturally, with craft cocktails. Keeping to the theme, the house drinks are all centered on Italian ingredients and flavors.

The pink “Roxbury Russo” features Campari, grapefruit vodka and citrus, while the outstanding “709” has more of a Pimm’s Cup feel, with amaro, ginger beer, lemon and lime.

Also kicking things off was a board of lovingly handcrafted salumi ($7), courtesy of sous chef Ben White. Although the prosciutto di parma wasn’t cured in house (lamented White, “I would have needed to start the process about three years ago”), the mortadella, beef bresaola, tangy sopressata, and an other-worldly duck prosciutto were an excellent start, and clearly show the kitchen crew’s dedication to traditional techniques.

“Salumi is an ancient art, dating back thousands of years,” White said. “It’s worked this long ... why stop now?”

Other antipasti included cheesy, lamb-stuffed arancini (traditional fried rice balls) and bruschetta with whipped goat cheese and roasted blueberries, as well as a simple salad of mixed greens with a grilled peach and a ricotta salata dressing (all $7).

Handmade pastas also grace the menu at Cibugnù. The tortellini, stuffed with a shrimp, ricotta and hazelnut filling, arrive in a bowl, over which is poured a flavorful shrimp broth redolent of the sea ($14). Better still was the roasted corn and mascarpone ravioli served with roasted blueberries, garlic cream, scallions and ricotta ($14), which many might recognize as a winner at this year’s New Orleans Wine & Food Experience. It’s a knockout dish.

As for pizza, Cibugnù’s wood-fire oven cooks up a perfectly crispy, bubbly crust, on top of which diners will find everything from Italian sausage and peppers to salame, fresh mozzarella with basil, eggplant, locally sourced vegetables and other favorites. The “Gamberi,” however, is an inventive pie, topped with shrimp, garlic, sweet corn, ricotta salata, and a sunny side-up egg ($14). It’s a combination that might seem strange, but proves to be intensely satisfying. It makes one wonder why people haven’t been adding eggs to pizza as a standard practice.

While the pizza and pastas are well and thoughtfully executed, the shining star on the menu at Cibugnù is definitely the whole roasted fish (market price, in this case a speckled trout for $25). Seasoned, then crusted in a salt dome and baked in the wood fire oven, the result is a tender, flaky, wonderfully moist fish served theatrically tableside, where the chef deftly removes the head and bones (offering you the tender cheek, if you request), and lays the flesh atop a flavorful cauliflower puree and fresh tomatoes. It’s priced for one, but would be excellent shared between two diners, especially if appetizers and pastas are involved.

Another worthy entree is the squid stuffed with sausage ($19), served with a chickpea polenta and scallion pesto.

“We’re all little kids at heart,” Ycaza said. “It’s all about things that we find humor in when we’re cooking. So this is simply taking a squid and using it as sausage casing. We made a very mild sausage, thinking about the flavors that you normally see with squid and octopus. So the sausage is very light, not very fatty, and very bright with citrus and fennel.”

The dessert menu, including a refreshing watermelon granita ($6) and a vanilla panna cotta ($8), is a nice end to the meal, but if you don’t have room after salumi, pizza, pasta and a whole fish, opt instead for the decadent dessert cocktails, particularly the “Cristofino,” which incorporates espresso, Bailey’s and frangelico liqueur ($11), as well as the “Tiramisu ($9), which is essentially cake in a glass.

It’s clear that Timpone, Chef Ycaza, and the rest of the crew are having fun with Sicilian cuisine, while still paying tribute to the traditions of the “old country.” Said the chef, “I know the food is playful, but I definitely try not to mess with it too much, and have respect for and be true to the ingredients.”