Biaggio Montalbano was a passionate man. He was devoutly religious and practiced his religion publicly. And, he was equally devoted to food: serving, preparing and selling a remarkable sandwich on round Italian bread, the loaf named the muffuletta.
He called his version of that garlic-enhanced concoction of olive salad, meats and cheeses, the “Roma Sandwich.” From his domain at 724 St. Philip St., Mr. Montalbano reigned supreme for decades, a devoted and eccentric purveyor of one of Sicily’s best gifts to New Orleans.
Beginning in the years before World War I, the French Quarter was home to numerous Italian, and more particularly Sicilian, immigrant families. Fruits, vegetables, groceries – these were the products that provided the livelihood for many of these Orleanians. The great international fruit companies would grow from this beginning, and so would countless family-run groceries and restaurants.
In 1917, the Montalbano brothers – listed on the deed as Biaggio, Calogero and Sebastian – purchased a small house on a long narrow lot at 724 St. Philip St., from a widow, Virginia Schiro Marciante. The Montalbanos, according to obituary details, originally came from Contessa Entellina, Siciliy. Many New Orleans families came from this small Sicilian town, most of whose residents were actually descendants of ethnic Albanians, the “Arbresh,” Biaggio would marry Mary Sciambra, and the Sciambra family were also owners of 724 St. Philip St.
A front room of the house soon became a delicatessen, with a gleaming white meat counter directly on the right as you entered. The second room, behind this, contained more grocery stock. This was a family enterprise and while the Sciambra and Montalbano clan occupied the rest of the building – which grew with additional rooms as needed – everyone helped with the customers. And the customers came.
What drew them in was the Roma Sandwich.
“That sandwich was as big as a table,” Frank Bruno Sr., recalls. And you didn’t just pick one up at the counter. Standing behind his meat counter, Mr. Montalbano looked through his heavy-rimmed glasses and contemplated his customer. If you wanted a Roma Sandwich, you had to design it yourself. “Whatever you wanted he’d put on it.” While the customer chose their meat – salami, mortadella, prosciutto – then cheeses – provolone, mozzarella – then some homemade olive salad, the antipasto, Mr. Montalbano created his sandwiches to order. “Then he’d put it on the scale and you paid by the weight of what you ordered.” Frank Bruno explains. As a young law student in the 1940s, Bruno was appreciative. “He didn’t charge very much. That was the biggest bargain in the world.”
Pat Ruffino recalls that Mr. Montalbano used bread from the United Bakery, “the best Italian bread.” Besides the meat counter, “he had the little shelves in the back. He carried all sorts of delicacies from Italy. He had special olive oil and delicious black olives.”
Mr. Montalbano made a good sandwich but he and his shop made an impact on everyone who entered. It was more than a grocery; it was a shrine.
At one point he called it “The Roma Room” but it was also known as the “Angel of Peace” sandwich shop. As his granddaughter Bernadette Patterson remembers, “There was an altar with the angel over it. There was a huge statue of St. Joseph. In the back room there were candles and lights.”
When Patterson grew up in the house, the telephone in the store could be reached at night only by walking carefully around the statues and the altar until you saw a night-light in front of a small shrine to St. Joseph.
In addition, the back room walls were filled with holy pictures and a framed special blessing from the Pope!
Mr. Montalbano was always ready to give a customer a lucky bean – a fava bean, the bean that by intervention of St. Joseph had ended a great famine in Sicily. A lucky bean was sure to keep money in your purse.
Mr. Montalbano demanded proper behavior from everyone who entered his shop. Joseph Miceli recalls, “ He was a real perfectionist. Not that people generally cursed, but nobody could curse in there.” And, as Frank Bruno remembers, “when you’d go in there, he wouldn’t let anybody smoke. He’d say ‘You wouldn’t smoke in church, would you?’”
Mr. Montalbano’s devotion extended beyond creating his own little church. According to a postcard picturing him in his shop, he had held a parade for St. Anthony in thanksgiving for favors granted. And, he regularly created an altar to St. Joseph on the Saint’s feast day, March 19.
According to Rosalie Serio Bilich, whose family held a St. Joseph Altar in their Bourbon Street home, devotion to the saint was so intense that “you’d have thought St. Joseph was from Sicily – we never considered he might be Jewish.” In the French Quarter there were altars in homes, to which the public was welcomed, there might be an altar at St. Mary’s gymnasium and sometimes shops or restaurants might host one.
Frances Parkinson Keyes’ 1941 novel Crescent Carnival has a section on the St. Joseph altars of the French Quarter, and one particular altar was a special attraction. In the book, it was located at “Montefiore’s grocery.”
“The room back of the shop was papered entirely in religious and it was almost completely filled with an enormous table, only a narrow passageway being left around it. At one end of the table was erected a small shrine, enclosing a statue of St. Joseph and encircled with lighted candles and china figurines. But the rest of the table was laden with dished heaped high with foodstuffs.”
The St. Joseph altar described was at Montalbano’s. Bernadette Patterson notes, “The table was marble. It was so heavy, it was in sections. And it did take up the whole room.”
Mr. Montalbano didn’t end his devotions with parades and altars and his shrine. According to Frank Bruno, “He would ask you to made a little donation to his bread fund. Then every so often he would put his bakers cap on and go out with a basket of bread and give it to the poor people. He collected nickels and pennies all year for that.”
Mr. Montalbano died in 1956. For a while, the family continued the shop. As Bernadette Patterson remembers, “After that, my mom and my uncle kept the place going. On Sundays, my grandmother used to make a big pot of meatballs, or sausages, and they would sell dinners in the back. She would make the antipasto in this huge bowl she had.”
When the building left the family’s hands, it went to Frank Bruno. “When I saw the place was available, I bought the building from the family.” Mr. Montalbano’s shrine had outlived him. “It was actually like he left it, the counters were in there, all of his holy pictures were on the walls.”
Necessary renovations and rebuilding followed and today no trace of the Angel of Peace sandwich shop remains, except in a memory of good tastes and good times – and of a devoted sandwich maker who practiced his trade with his heart.