For over two decades, locals and visitors alike returned again and again to the small, cypress wood arched door on St. Phillip Street seeking Italian cuisine heavily perfumed with garlic and rosemary, and a warm, intimate atmosphere that felt like coming home. In 2015, Irene’s Cuisine‘s fate was sealed when the Times-Picayune reported that the Louisiana State Museum, the restaurant’s landlord, would not renew the restaurant’s 15-year lease amid concerns about storing historic documents and artwork above what was essentially over an “open flame.” Three years later when Irene’s relocated to Bienville Street, many regulars were concerned that the ambiance would be lost, but that’s precisely what owner Irene DiPietro and her son, chef Nicholas Scalco, fought so hard to preserve.
The new location on Bienville Street is also sandwiched between Decatur and Chartres, only now it’s a bit farther upriver, only two blocks from Canal Street. Originally built in the 1880s, the property was purchased by DiPietro in 1997, and sat empty for both before and after her acquisition for many years. When Irene’s move became inevitable, DiPietro began renovations on the ground floor of the three-story, Bienville Street building, adding tile flooring laid by Gary Howard of Elite Tile Inc. in Metairie and mahogany wainscoting installed by Gretna Cabinet Co. in Marrero.
In an effort to evoke the milieu of the old Irene’s, three dining rooms have been sectioned off, mostly by interior windows and glass French doors – some inset with frosted glass and others with old stained and painted glass which patrons will remember from the previous location. “An old friend gave those to Irene years ago,” says Scalco. Though much taller, the ceilings are painted in a familiar, dark sage green and DiPietro has filled the walls with the celebrity photographs, angelic statuettes and other décor from the original location.
In addition to his toque, Scalco also wears a hard hat, at least figuratively, as much of the construction in the new restaurant was his doing, especially the long, pine bar topped with granite and the huge, floor-to-ceiling, built-in shelving unit standing behind it. “I’d never taken on a carpentry project this large,” says Scalco. “It took almost a year to complete!” Including the bar in the new space was a small point of contention between mother and son, but Scalco won out and delights in curating the restaurant’s extensive wine collection and cocktail menu.
Just off the bar, through large French doors topped with an arched glass transom, lies a large courtyard. Surrounded by brick walls dripping with ivy, the courtyard offers a gorgeous place for guests to while away the minutes waiting for their table sipping cocktails under the stars. Though dining is not currently offered outside, Scalco has plans to add it in the near future after a few upgrades like space heaters and glass patio awnings, a large step up from the St. Phillip Street parking garage.
In one of the smaller dining rooms, an echo of the old location is distinctly felt with a fireplace mantle at one end and heavy wood lattice that gives the illusion of a lower ceiling, creating a more intimate space. “The wood drop-ceiling was installed specifically to hold the stained glass window we had set into the old ceiling,” says Scalco, “but it was unfortunately damaged in the move.” Plans are in the works to either repair the glass or find a new one to take its place.
Like the old wine barrels, wood-lined rooms and exemplary service, another aspect that hasn’t changed at Irene’s is the food. DiPietro’s beloved family dishes like white wine and rosemary roasted chicken and Lamb a la Provence still reside on the menu along with her son’s additions like the San Francisco-style, seafood-loaded cioppino with a “saffron-scented” tomato broth.
It’s been almost two years since Irene’s moved to Bienville Street, but judging by the highly-rated online reviews and dining rooms that are packed nightly, it’s fair to say they’re still going strong. “Sometimes I’ll take of the chef coat and sit at the bar, listening to conversations” says Scalco. “From what I’ve heard, I’d say our customers are happy with the new space.” Here’s hoping they remain a French Quarter favorite for the next 25 years.
*Article originally published in FrenchQuarterJournal.com on January 10, 2020
**Photos courtesy of Irene’s