Food + Drink
I was recently asked about Italian food in New Orleans: “When did Italians come here? What’s the story with the muffuletta sandwich? Why is the red sauce here so sweet?” Time for a piccolo (little) primer on New Orleans Italian cuisine and St. Joseph’s Da
Talking (and eating) Italian, hot restaurant dish and pasta you can pack in your suitcase.
A great number of Sicilians settled here during the 1800s. Many worked on the docks, sold produce at the French Market or opened corner-store markets and cafés. In the early 1900s came businesses like Taormina’s, a pasta factory/grocery/restaurant in the building that is now Muriel’s (p. 25), Central Grocery (p. 24) and many, many more.
The most logical explanation for the genesis of the muffuletta suggests Italian workers on break from the docks cobbled together bits of this (meats and cheeses) and that (olive salad and bread) to form a meal, of sorts. As for style, the ongoing debate is whether to eat a muffuletta hot or cold. Decide for yourself at Central Grocery (cold), Napoleon House (warm; p. 25), Stein’s (cold; p. 28) and Cochon Butcher (warm; p. 20).
New Orleans’ red sauce—commonly called “red gravy”—is indeed sweet, and there are a large number of restaurants where sweet sauce is signature. To taste, check out the spinach-stuffed cannelloni at Vincent’s (p. 29) or Mandina’s (p. 28) Italian sausage and spaghetti. For a brighter, more tart red sauce, there’s Italian Barrel (p. 25) for family-recipe lasagna, the handmade pasta and meatballs at Red Gravy (p. 21) or the “Ricotta Gnocchi Bolognese” at Altamura (p. 27).
St. Joseph’s Day, a Catholic food-centric tradition honoring the patron saint of famine, is celebrated with private and public altars adorned with pastas, casseroles, cakes and baked goods offered in exchange for monetary donation. Retail and travel-friendly, 100-plus year-old Brocato’s (p. 28) has fresh-baked and packaged St. Joseph’s cookies.
New Orleans Italian cuisine is a unique feast all it’s own. Mangia, mangia. Nothing could be sweeter. —Lorin Gaudin