russo’s

For a few years now I kept hearing people talk about this wonderful  Italian restaurant in Peninsula that was worth checking out. Upon hearing these words, I was definitely curious. But then I’d hear the latter part of the statement and become perplexed. It’s an Italian and Cajun restaurant. And it never went any further than that. I admit, I judged. The combination seemed awkward to me, plus I’m not really a Cajun fare fan. Luckily me for me, I had the opportunity to learn otherwise.

On behalf of Metromix, we found ourselves in a booth at Russo’s one recent Saturday night at a very early 5 p.m. (we had Natalie with us). Here’s the full story and part of the review is below. This gives a pretty good recap of our experience. But what I didn’t really share too much on was the dish we ordered for Natalie – kid’s cavatelli with marinara sauce. In all honesty, I absolutely loved that sauce (and meatball). I am such a marinara  snob and if you don’t have good sauce, I’m convinced the same will be true for the rest of the menu. I can’t tell you how much it bothers me when Italian restaurants can’t even make a good sauce. Well, Russo’s can and did. This sauce was outstanding. In fact, I played the part of mean mommy the next morning when I ate all of Natalie’s leftovers  (you would have too!).

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Since 2002, there’s been an interesting restaurant taking shape in Peninsula. The restaurant is presenting a combination not found anywhere else in town—the flavors of Louisiana plus the various regions of Italy.

Food: The wildly-eclectic menu at Russo’s features Italian, as you might expect, but also Cajun and Southwestern dishes—which are definitely unexpected. These are the flavors that best represent the chef, David Russo, who combines his Italian heritage and skills he learned from his grandma, coupled with years spent training in Louisiana (including several working side-by-side with a rising chef named Emeril Lagasse).

The lengthy menu features something for everyone—literally. In addition to the lengthy menu, the chef offers nightly specials, which practically make up another menu. We’re told this keeps the chef from getting bored and allows for him to go beyond Cajun and Italian fare.

On our visit, we bypassed the regular menu (though the Navajo tacos on pueblo fry bread were tempting) for a handful of daily specials. We started with the crawfish corn bisque ($7) and oysters for Marty, freshly-shucked oysters topped with tobiko, pickled ginger, green onion and soy ($15.99)—clearly showcasing the chef’s desire to cook outside his specialty. Main courses, which come with a house salad, included grilled double cut pork chops with red beans and rice, Southern-cooked collard greens with Steen’s cane syrup and Creole mustard ($24.99) and seared main diver scallops, corn-fried yellow lake perch and smokey-baked macaroni and cheese with grilled vegetables and red and white remoulada sauces ($28.99).

The bisque was delightful, though on the heavy side as you might imagine. The oysters were definitely the star of the starters, and perhaps the entire meal. Aside from a bit too much soy, these oysters were otherwise perfect—and fresh (we’re told they were flown in that morning, as is all the seafood. Flown in fresh, never frozen). There were many other oyster options on the menu; this dish gets us excited to try them all.

The dinners impressed as well. The gigantic pork chop was wonderfully flavorful, juicy and tender, though the accompaniments fell short and definitely weren’t at the same level as the chop. The combination dinner was perhaps too much food, but definitely a wise selection. The macaroni was without a doubt the best we’ve sampled in awhile, as were the scallops. The perch, on the other hand, seemed to be lacking any real flavor.

It’s also worth noting how much we enjoyed the bread (a large basket of homemade bread, including corn bread, with slow-roasted garlic heads to spread), and even the simple side salads. Every single item is made in house, and for a side salad, the balsamic vinaigrette with blue cheese was quite satisfying.

While the majority of dishes sampled weren’t Italian, we did try some cavatelli with pomodoro and meatballs, the chef’s grandma’s recipe. Given that the Louisiana side of the menu was so good, we were skeptical that he’d be able to execute the Italian side just as well. And while we only tried this one dish, it’s our opinion that if you can make a good Italian sauce, you are on the right path. And surprisingly, that’s exactly what this sauce was—quite wonderful.

Décor: There’s a strange combination of décor elements taking place, much like that of mixing Cajun and Italian cuisine. There’s almost a melting pot of décor elements going on and even remnants of a previous restaurant’s markings. They’ve tried to inject the Creole inspiration into the décor (particularly in the nicely-spaced Bacchus lounge that overlooks the patio) where the walls are donned with images from blues and jazz festivals from Louisiana. In the main dining room, the large open kitchen acts as the focal point, that’s surrounded by stools for diners to watch the kitchen in action.

Bottom line: Cajun and Italian is surely a pairing you don’t think of often and may even make some doubt its possibilities. But this chef makes it works and is turning diners into believers who keep coming back for more.

2 Comments

  1. Posted May 27, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Never heard of this place, so thanks for the tip. We were just in the area last week looking for someplace to dine. We ended up hauling ourselves back to Cleveland instead!

  2. Alan
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Michelle — thanks for reviewing Russo’s as it’s been in our top 10 for at least 5 years.

    If you get back there, please, PLEASE check out his cajun food. I didn’t even know I was a fan until visting Russo’s and getting hooked on their Seafood Creole. We also love their Chicken Etouffee although it was too spicy for us on one occasion. Also, you’re right, the Navajo Tacos ARE tremendous.

    The only disappointment we’ve ever had (and it may have had more to do with my expectations than the kitchen’s execution) was with their New Orleans Barbecue Shrimp. I was expecting the classic recipe from Pascal’s Manale in NOLA and got something else. While it was ok it wasn’t remotely close to what we expected.

    Our favorite Italian dish there is spaghetti with white clam sauce. Mama mia, is that incredible. We’ve had it at least a half-dozen times and it’s been off the charts yummy every time.

    Glad you made it out there and enjoyed the experience.

    Love the blog.

    Alan