ExtinctSquare-150x150La Riviera
Metairie: 4427 Shores Drive

For most of the first century of Italian restaurants in New Orleans, almost all of them were homestyle operations. Mamma cooking, Pappa running the dining room, and the bambinos doing everything when they got old enough. The waiters just fell into the business, and didn’t let their thick accents dilute their friendliness. The food was lusty and wonderful. But nobody would mistake these trattorias from the much more formal French-Creole operations that dominated the restaurant universe of the day.

Then Chef Goffredo Fraccaro came to town. Born in Genoa in 1926, he worked in restaurants until he was old enough to go to sea. For decades, he cooked on ships. Sometimes one of these ships called at New Orleans. Walking around the town, he found that he liked everything about it, and disembarked permanently.

Goffredo made his way to Baton Rouge, where he cooked for a few years. He returned to New Orleans in 1969 to open the city’s first big-deal Italian restaurant. Even the name was grandiose: Il Ristorante Tre Fontane. The restaurant of the three fountains was hidden in the French Quarter on Exchange Alley, where the Pelican Club is now.

It was too soon for such a restaurant. Most New Orleanians with a taste for Italian food wanted the rustic, inexpensive Sicilian style. They couldn’t get their heads around a ten-buck Italian dinner cooked the way it was done in Northern Italy, regardless of its goodness. Tourists were not in New Orleans to eat Italian food. After three years, the Tre Fontane partnership foundered.

Goffredo didn’t want to give up. He opened a new restaurant called La Riviera in Metairie, a block off Clearview Parkway at West Esplanade, in an area only beginning to be developed. He toned down his menu, but only a little. He had his friend Phil Johnson–the bearded news director on Channel Four–write menu copy to make the point that each part of Italy had a different style of cooking, none of which were much like New Orleans Italian food.

Nobody paid much attention to all that, and instead ordered spaghetti and meatballs. Then veal Parmigiana. Then fried calamari (the best ever in New Orleans, served in massive, golden-brown piles). About twenty years later, he had people eating veal saltimbocca, osso buco, trout with anchovy sauce, and all the other stuff he couldn’t sell them back at Tre Fontane. Ironically, he even served it on the same beautiful plates he brought with him from the French Quarter and kept using for thirty years.

Along the way, Goffredo entered and won a crabmeat cooking competition in San Francisco. The dish: crabmeat ravioli. Although most New Orleans-Italian restaurants serve that routinely now, the dish was a complete innovation then. It became the signature dish at the restaurant: house-made pasta pillows stuffed with crabmeat, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and cream, served in Alfredo sauce. It was spectacular. Not only did everybody eat it when they went to La Riviera, they ate it everywhere else, as restaurants rushed to copy the new classic.

Metairie people came to love not just Goffredo’s food, but the man himself. Getting a hug from him was unavoidable. He didn’t come out into the dining room a lot, but he gave a warm welcome to any customer who infiltrated the kitchen to say hello. He’d almost always hand you something to pop into your mouth right out of a bubbling pan on the stove.

Clockwise from bottom left: Goffredo Fraccaro, Warren Leruth, Chris Kerageorgiou, Frank Levy, Phil Johnson.

Clockwise from bottom left: Goffredo Fraccaro, Warren Leruth, Chris Kerageorgiou, Frank Levy, Phil Johnson.

Goffredo’s two best friends were Chris Kerageorgiou and Warren Leruth, the owners of La Provence and LeRuth’s respectively. The three great chefs looked a lot alike, and when they got together they’d cut up, shout and laugh at one another. They were the founders of the Chef’s Charity For Children, the oldest and most distinguished of the many culinary fundraisers in New Orleans. Never was there an equal of that troika of cooking talent.

La Riviera originally opened in what looked like an office building on a side street. The small, rectangular dining room’s tables were separated from one another by rows of aquariums filled with fish. Looking at the fish, you would also look into the plates of people less than two feet away from yours. In the 1980s, Goffredo built a bigger, much handsomer restaurant across the street. A decade later, Goffredo sold La Riviera to his nephew Valentino Rovere. But he kept on working every day, not cutting back for years.

La Riviera was badly flooded by the floods that washed over Metairie from the lake after Katrina. Valentino said he wanted to reopen, but the restaurant became a salon and spa. Goffredo is the last man standing of his generation of chef friends. He’s deep into his eighties, watching the many upscale Italian restaurants follow the trail he pioneered.

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  1. Ell on June 7, 2015

    this area of Metairie was not flooded by water from Katrina flowing over the levee along the lakefront. La Riviera was flooded when Broussard sent the pump station operators across the lake and the pumps electrical engines stopped working and the lake backed up through the pipes.

    • Ason on August 17, 2015

      I worked at the restaurant for 8 years. What a great guy.

      • charles on March 7, 2016

        I worked for chef from 1982 to 1985

  2. RICK GEYER on July 23, 2015

    WHAT A WONDERFUL STORY, it brought back so many memories. I knew GIFFREDO & CHRIS were gere great buddies, I did not realize WARREN LE RUTH was as involved. Great memories of all 3 and their Restaurants. I must admit there is nothing to equal NEW ORLEANS, when it comes to FOOD and Characters.RICK GEYER

  3. Heidi on July 23, 2015

    In the the early 80’s saw Cesar Romero with friends at the restaurant. He was at the Saenger for something or another. Went there regularly until a month before it flooded. The veal there was so much better than any other restaurant. It’s funny how his innovations became old school so fast with the clientele getting older and older. I miss his style of cooking. I wish it was still around today.

  4. Wilson on July 24, 2015

    I got my first job as a bus boy at La Riviera, I lived a few blocks away. On my first day I was passing through the kitchen and saw a tray of white and dark chocolate covered strawberries on a table. They were gorgeous and without any thought I picked one up and ate it. Chef Goffredo saw this and completely freaked out…. I had no clue, I was a kid and when a batch of cookies was out on the table you picked one up and ate it right? He stood there in total disbelief and his head started turning bright red (and I mean it) then he exploded, started screaming and yelling and screaming……and yelling. Emilio came over to see what was happening and he started screaming at Emilio about me……At first I realized I made a mistake (Oh man they sell these things) but after he was going on and on I just thought well this is going way overboard over one strawberry. I started to become amused by it after a while. Didn’t he realize I was just a kid on my first day totally clueless? Busing tables was not for me, I quit after a few nights, then found out box boy at Canal Villiere was not for me and quit my first day, same thing with carpet cleaning…….

  5. charles on March 7, 2016

    Chef Goffredo and Chef Chris both influenced me to become a chef

  6. KC costa on May 19, 2016

    This is truly one of the Katrina tragedies. The food quality and service here was exquisite. I’m visiting from Bay Area and would have loved to make my visit with a dinner here. Grew up in Jefferson and a special night out always included la riviera

  7. C. Cortazzo0 on May 8, 2017

    Chef’s friendliness, good cheer, love of cooking and love of people spilled over into his wonderful, creative dishes. I was ecstatic when, on my first trip to his restaurant, he took me into his kitchen and showed me around. When I remarked on a crucifix hanging in the dining area he told me it’s history, and thanked me for my interest in it.