Unalloyed Italian Restaurants
The taste of New Orleans Italian food started out Sicilian. As time passed since the great Sicilian influx here in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became Sicilian-Creole. Go to Sicily, and you’ll see just how far we’ve diverged from that big set of roots.
But during all that time, people from other parts of Italy wound up in New Orleans. Many opened restaurants. Their food was usually like what they cooked where they came from. Since any two places a hundred miles apart in Italy have noticeably different dishes, this almost always resulted in new food.
Osso buco at Del Porto.
Some diners rejected these new imports out of hand, mistaking their unfamiliarity for inaccurate cooking. But others recognized the authentically regional aspect of the new restaurants. For awhile, anyway–until the food evolved under customer pressure into yet another branch of Creole cooking.
The first example of this process was the now-extinct Turci’s. It opened in 1917 with a menu of Bolognese food, with a touch of Naples. I imagine that the Sicilian majority rejected it at first. But it became one of the great New Orleans Italian restaurants, and enriched the local Italian cuisine. Other non-Creole Italian restaurants opened, one every ten years or so: Mosca’s, La Riviera, the Lido, Maximo’s, and Andrea’s.
When Andrea’s opened, I thought the time was ripe for many more restaurants with Northern Italian food. It wasn’t. Almost twenty years went by before that happened. But now restaurants based on the current cooking of all parts of Italy represent the hottest restaurant trend in town.
How can you tell if you’re in one of these restaurants? The marker dishes are osso buco with a brown (not red) sauce, a large selection of seafood and vegetable antipasti, salumi (especially if made in house), mussels and clams (especially if made into cioppino) and the absence of dishes topped with bubbling red sauce and melted cheese. But it’s getting tricky. The Sicilian-Creole places are picking up ideas from the new trattorias.
These are interesting times for those of us who like Italian food.