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.
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.