by ERROL LABORDE
My dad was a hard-working man.” Those words still resonate whenever I think about Angelo Brocato’s ice cream parlor. Speaking was Angelo Brocato Jr., who, along with his brother, Joseph, ran the store that his father founded. The conversation took place not long after the ice-cream shop relocated from its longtime home on Ursulines Street in the French Quarter to the Mid-City location it has occupied since 1979.
Brocato Jr. was a gaunt man with a slightly gravelly voice that added character to what he said. He recalled to me the early days of the parlor that his father opened in 1905. At that time, the Esplanade Avenue end of the Vieux Carré was a bustling Sicilian neighborhood. Immigrants had been settling there over the past decade, including young Angelo Brocato, a native of Cefalu, who brought with him the experience of working with pastry chefs in Palermo.
Brocato Jr. recalled the early days of working at his father’s shop in the French Quarter. As automobiles became more plentiful, he and his kin would provide curb-side service. The main clientele, though, was the local Italian population. One story that intrigued me was that of Diamond Jim Moran, a legendary Italian restaurateur known for his sparkling jewelry. Each morning one of Diamond Jim’s sons would go to Brocato’s carrying an empty pitcher. The container would get filled with Brocato’s signature lemon ice. Then his son would buy a loaf of Italian bread, crispy and warm, right out of the oven. He then scampered home where the Moran clan would have a breakfast of lemon ice spread on slices of bread.
May 2005: My first day ever in Sicily. Guytano, our guide, is showing us the sights of a village named Termini Immerse. From an overlook we can see the port, which is divided from the highway by a track. The train that rumbles on it connects Palermo, to the west, with Cefalu, to the east. Near where we stand is a gelato (ice cream) stand. Guytano explained that Sicilians, who after all live on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, have a fondness for ice cream. A common way of serving it, he says, is in a brioche – with the scoops placed inside the bread. I thought about the Diamond Jim Moran story – eating ice cream and bread is a Sicilian custom.
We’re in downtown Palermo the next day. In one corner of a restaurant is a display counter filled with baked items of many sizes, shapes, fillings and flavors. Sicilians like to bake, too, and they’re pretty clever about it. The train from Cefalu had brought young Angelo Brocato to Palermo, where he learned to make confections. When hard times hit, the nearby port would be his gateway to New Orleans.
On the next day of our trip we visited Cefalu, a delightful medieval town with narrow passageways made busy with shops. One street leads down to the beach. On warm days a popular pastime is to buy a gelato from a nearby truck, sit on a bench and see the sea. Young Angelo Brocato probably did that too and maybe wondered about the places beyond the Mediterranean.
This year marks the 100th anniversary since Angelo Brocato opened his store. The business that his grandsons now run is thriving. Brocato’s has redefined some dishes, such as the cannoli (originally a carnival pastry native to Palermo) and lemon ice, creating local renditions that are even better than in the old country. I have been to Brocato’s many times, but now I see it differently. Where I once saw just an ice-cream parlor, now I see a product of the Mediterranean sun and the train rumbling from Cefalu to Palermo.
With hard work, the journey extends into its second century. •