This restaurant beloved by locals moved from a cozy St. Philip Street setting to spacious new quarters on Bienville, bringing along all the original ambiance.
- by Kim Ranjbar
- photos by Ellis Anderson
For nearly three 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.
But in 2015, Irene's fate at that location was sealed. 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 in the floors above what was essentially over an “open flame.”
Three years later, in 2018, 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 at 529 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 building 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 and mahogany wainscoting.
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 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.
In addition to his toque, Scalco also wore a hard hat during the renovation, at least figuratively: much of the construction in the new restaurant was his doing. The long, pine bar topped with granite and the huge, floor-to-ceiling, built-in shelving unit standing behind it are his creations.
“I'd never taken on a carpentry project this large,” says Scalco. “It took me almost a year to complete just the bar!”
While including the bar in the new space was a small point of contention between mother and son during the planning phase, Scalco now 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.
Though dining is not currently offered outside, Scalco plans to add it in the near future after a few upgrades like space heaters and glass patio awnings. Surrounded by brick walls dripping with ivy, the courtyard will offer a gorgeous place for guests to dine and sip cocktails under the stars.
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 off 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 30 years.
Though she was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Kim Ranjbar felt New Orleans calling her home as soon as she hit puberty. A graduate of Granola U (a.k.a. Sonoma State University), Kim took her passion for the written word and dragged it over 2000 miles to flourish in the city she loves. After more than seventeen years as a transplant — surviving hurricanes, levee failures, oil spills, boil water advisories and hipster invasions — Kim hopes to eventually earn the status of local and be welcomed into the fold. Feel free to check out her blog or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.