I always ask friends who are Baton Rouge residents to give me tips about good restaurants in the area. The latest tip came from a native who graduated from LSU, and now has a catering business. Ruffino’s Italian Restaurant is where she has celebrated many special occasions through the years. The executive chef of this memorable restaurant is Peter Sclafani III, an award-winning, third generation restaurateur from New Orleans, whose grandfather owned the phenomenally popular Sclafani’s, and whose uncle runs a cooking school in New Orleans that turns out some of the city’s great chefs. Chef Sclafani is known for his passion for fresh, regional ingredients and creative specials.
The last Baton Rouge restaurant I had received a great tip about was Le Creole. The chef I had encountered while dining there for lunch was Ryan Andre, whose cooking stints have included Commander’s Palace in New Orleans (In my review, I mistakenly referred to him as Randy instead of Ryan, and for that I apologize, kind readers). Although I am a resident of New Orleans, which is known for its celebrity chefs, I have come away from my dining experiences in Baton Rouge realizing how much incredible culinary talent is in the city these days.
Ruffino’s, located at 18811 Highland Road (225-753-3458), turned out to be a wonderful experience. Coincidentally, while speaking with Chef Sclafani recently, I discovered I had selected one of his fabulous duck dishes as my top choice while serving as a judge during a blind tasting for the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience last year (he received an award for the dish). I fondly remembered the delectable sample while speaking with him about his duck recipes and other culinary marvels at Ruffino’s.
Chef Sclafani, who has won several other culinary awards, including the Celebrity Chef of New Orleans Cook-off and a silver medal in the Louisiana Gold Culinary Classic, makes many personal appearances in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the French Quarter Festival, and A Taste of Baton Rouge. He is a former board member of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, and is a frequent guest on WBRZ’s morning show and WAFB’s Saturday cooking segments. He also teaches a highly popular demonstration cooking class once a month at Ruffino’s.
Popular with locals and visitors alike, Ruffino’s offers an extensive and diverse menu that is far beyond the delicious gourmet pizzas that come from the wood-burning oven. Diners also enjoy wonderful appetizers, such as crabmeat cheesecake glossed with a meuniere sauce, with just a hint of demiglace; eggplant Mary crowned with lump crabmeat and mushrooms; BBQ shrimp, redolent of rosemary and Worcestershire; and crabmeat with a zesty Creole brie sauce poured into a puff pastry. My recommendation is to get the appetizer sampler to share with everyone at the table.
Most of the pastas are homemade, and there is a “bambino” menu for kids who love such things as spaghetti and meatballs. The extensive menu offerings include seafood, veal, steaks and chops, chicken, and Ruffino’s specialties. In the realm of seafood, the cedar plank baked redfish has my vote. It is usually made with a farm-raised redfish from Texas.
“When you make the redfish at home, you have to make sure the cedar plank is untreated. If you buy it at a store such as Home Depot, it may have arsenic on it,” Chef Sclafani advises. “You want to buy it at Williams-Sonoma or a place like Whole Foods.”
“We soak the cedar plank boards overnight and brush them with a little oil,” he continues. “We cut the tomatoes and we’ll shingle them over the fish. The tomatoes protect the fish from drying out in the oven. This dish kind of embodies what we do at Ruffino’s.” The chef refers to his cuisine at Ruffino’s as Italian-Creole fusion. The menu includes both classic dishes and creative fare.
The steaks are truly excellent here. My favorite is the ultra-tender eight-ounce filet mignon served with rosemary and garlic roasted potatoes. Chef Sclafani cooks them sous vide, which translates into one incredible steak that is cooked perfectly throughout (not raw on the inside and medium towards the edges like most others). “The sous vide process tenderizes the meat,” Chef Sclafani explains. “Then we sear it at 1800 degrees. That’s the part everybody likes—the sizzle. When you cut the steak, it is perfectly medium rare from top to bottom with all the wonderful juices.”
On Sundays, Ruffino’s runs a lobster special that is well worth sampling. A live one-and-a-half-pound Maine lobster with all the trimmings (including the homemade pasta du jour) goes for $19.95. Thursday’s osso bucco is also not to be missed. “I’m a huge fan of braising,” Chef Sclafani adds. “I’ll also do rabbit occasionally. If there is lobster left over from Sunday, I’ll run a fra diablo on Monday with a spicy tomato sauce. The lobster has really been a big hit on Sundays.”
For dessert, try the white chocolate bread pudding and the homemade sorbets (especially the blood orange or mango sorbets when available; they change daily). Ruffino’s has an impressive wine list, and the restaurant has recurrently been a recipient of the Wine Spectator’s Award.
There are special events held throughout the year, including LSU wine dinners, complete with people in mascot garb, and the Academy Awards wine dinners where the staff dresses up in character outfits connected to the “best picture” nominees. The many recent awards for Ruffino’s have included “Best Italian Restaurant,” “Best Date Night Restaurant,” “Chef of the Year,” and “Restaurant of the Year” (an honor bestowed by the Baton Rouge Hospitality Association). Most people agree after dining here that Ruffino’s is well worth visiting and revisiting.