CBD: 914 Poydras
No lost restaurant in New Orleans engenders the fervent yearning felt by anyone who ever ate in the original Turci’s. Although it’s been nearly four decades that it’s been gone, many people still harbor vivid memories of this great Italian restaurant. That’s because they ate there regularly when they were small children. Turci’s was decidedly a family place, where tables of six and eight and more outnumbered the deuces and fours.
Turci’s history reads like the setup for a novel. Ettore Turci (native of Bologna) and his wife Teresa (from Naples) were opera singers who came to America to perform in 1909. New Orleans had America’s oldest opera house, and a strong Italian community. The Turcis stayed. In 1917 they opened a restaurant called Turci’s Italian Gardens at 229 Bourbon Street. It thrived, then it became famous. The Turcis retired in 1943, and sold the restaurant. (One of the new owners was the father of Joe Segreto, who operated Eleven 79 in the Warehouse District until he passed away in 2015.)
Turci’s wasn’t in limbo for long. It reopened after the war on Poydras Street, where the next generation of Turcis began carrying the load. The food remained the same, the old regular customers came back, and Turci’s second life went on for nearly three decades.
It wasn’t a fancy place. Not even as nice as the one on Bourbon Street, says one of my older correspondents. The big room was blocky and noisy. A lot of that came from the clatter of tables filled with too many plates and bowls, the latter holding the sauce for the restaurant’s most famous dish: spaghetti alla Turci.
Spaghetti alla Turci was spaghetti and meatballs–sort of. It seemed simple, but its making was complex. It had a thick, ruddy-brown sauce riddled with chopped meat and accretions of meat that evolved into meatballs. Also in there were mushrooms and chicken. There was nothing else like it in any other restaurant. It wasn’t until I traveled to Italy that I encountered a similar sauce. It was in Bologna, where they don’t include one meat in a sauce if they can possibly include six meats. The recipe for spaghetti alla Turci is out there (and here), but not many people go to the not-inconsequential trouble of making it.
The menu was large, as was the style of the time. The spaghetti section of it (the word “pasta” was never seen on menus back then) included more varieties of serving it than you’d be able to think up now. Many dishes would be unfamiliar to today’s diners. Even classics like veal Parmigiana were made differently from the current style. Many of Turci’s dishes went extinct after the restaurant closed. One of them was the last truly exciting ravioli in town. Only lately have restaurants caught up with the goodness of that hand-made, veal-stuffed, mushroom-and-butter-sauced wonder.
Thinking back on the Turci’s experience, a miracle that I didn’t notice at the time is striking. At Turci’s, New Orleans eaters–even first-generation Italians–put on hold their suspicion of spaghetti made any way other than the way their mothers made it. I have spoken to hundreds of people who remember Turci’s; not one of them has ever told me he didn’t like the food there.
Unless he was talking about the failed attempt to revive Turci’s in 1976. Regular customers bemoaning the closing of the restaurant were ecstatic to hear that a consortium of local businessmen had put together a deal to reopen Turci’s. The new place was at 3218 Magazine Street. (Byblos is there now; the entrance was around the corner on Pleasant Street.) Giving an air of authenticity was the presence of Rose Turci, the one-armed second-generation cook from the old place.
Rose wasn’t really running the place, however. The new Turci’s never came close to reviving the magic of the original. It only lasted a couple of years, ending ignominiously by evolving into a pop-Italian place called Spaghetti Eddie’s.
Who was it that lamented the way so many great institutions end up as parodies of themselves?