Marrero: 1019 Avenue C.
Metairie: 4415 Airline Hwy.
The Lido closed only last year, but at least two sets of owners intervened since the years when its food was most memorable. In its heyday, it introduced New Orleans palates to Northern Italian cooking for the first time. No other restaurant served polenta, vitello saltimbocca, or risotto in these parts before the Lido did.
The original Lido owners were a couple of Italian couples who were liked as much for their charming, Italian-inflected personalities as for their cooking. Pietro and Josie Caligaro and Tony and Betty Mongiat were always on the premises, giving their customers lots of love, and getting it in return. To this day former customers ask about the Lido people–particularly Betty.
In the 1970s, this was the kind of restaurant that could incite people to cross town and get lost trying to find it. Nor did Uptowners mind going to the West Bank for something special. They were used to going to Mosca’s, LeRuth’s, and the Bistro Steak Room. They’d just keep rolling around Marrero until the Lido’s tall sign hove into view. That would be unimaginable now, regardless of the quality of the food.
You knew you were in a different kind of Italian place as soon as you were inside the door. Instead of tomato sauce, the aromas spoke of olive oil, rosemary, and herbs. Veal, chicken, and beef dishes came out with brown sauces; pasta sauces were as likely to start with cream as with tomato puree.
You could get spaghetti and meatballs or lasagna, of course. The New Orleans Italian community is so overwhelmingly Sicilian in its origins that to lack such familiar dishes would have been suicidal. But the presence of veal involtini (baby white veal slices stuffed with herbs, mozzarella, and an olive-oil-and-rosemary sauce) and Tuscan-style steaks made many of us think of the Lido every time any other restaurant arose to serve the food of the North.
In the 1980s, the Mongiats split with their partners and opened a new restaurant on Airline Highway in Metairie, near Clearview. The named it the Lido Gardens, and installed a menu more or less like the one they’d served in Marrero. Because the West Bank restaurant was so obscure, most customers thought this was an entirely new restaurant and kicked up a great deal of hubbub about it. In its peak years, the Lido Gardens was a packed house most of the time. I thought the food wasn’t quite as good as it had been at the old place. But Betty Mongiat was such an effusively welcoming person that you loved the place just because of her.
The Lido Gardens changed hands, closed, and was torn down by the early 1990s. The Marrero Lido got a new lease on life when West Jefferson Hospital went up a couple of blocks away, and its employees took a liking to the Lido’s food. Which, by then, had evolved well away from Northern Italian and could be described as just another pretty-good neighborhood Italian restaurant. Another ownership change happened in 2010, but by that time there were so many other pizza-pasta houses around the West Bank that the Lido failed to earn a spot on the mental dining map of many could-be customers.
Now it’s all memories. I liked Richard Collin’s line about the Lido, from his 1976 New Orleans Restaurant Guide: “Once the food is on the table, you can hear Venice outside.”