House-made pastry basket from AVO
By the dawn of the 20th century, the food of New Orleans had been firmly established as an identifiable cuisine, Creole, which was a source of cultural identity and pride. However, that cuisine wasn’t static then and isn’t now. As waves of immigrants moved into the city the culinary traditions they brought with them were slowly absorbed into the “mother” Creole cuisine, and they found their places at the table.
Creole cuisine’s ability to amalgamate with another is most evident in Creole Italian dishes. Following the Civil War the city recruited labor from other lands to work in agricultural interests, especially the cultivation of sugar cane, to maintain production to meet demand. Among those recruited by the Louisiana Immigration League were the Italians, many of them Sicilian. Sicilian immigrants flowed directly into the Port of New Orleans, bypassing Ellis Island, from 1885 to 1915. Like the people they found already living in New Orleans, food was central to the Sicilians’ life and identity.
Creole red gravy is the foundation of Creole Italian foods. It evolved as a traditional slow-cooked tomato sauce was adapted to Creole tastes. Instead of the fresh tomatoes commonly used in traditional Creole cooking, new dishes used the canned tomatoes the Sicilians had long favored. The sauce is made with a dark roux and includes bell peppers in its aromatic base, ingredients that would never have been used in a traditional Italian dish. This new Creolized Italian sauce is used as the foundation for many familiar dishes, such as meatballs and spaghetti, lasagna and baked ziti. To those of us who grew up with our city’s reinterpretation of one of the world’s great cuisines, fresh, Italian grandmother-made marinara sauce can fall flat.
A New Orleanian by way of Sicily Vincent Catalanotto opened his first eponymous restaurant in Metairie in 1989 and another in 1997 with business partner Tony Imbraguglio on St. Charles Avenue near the Riverbend, my local haunt. The place never seems to be stacked less than three deep at the moodily lit bar and those hoping to get lucky and score a table without a reservation fill the thoughtfully placed benches lining the Fern Street sidewalk.
The food at Vincent’s is as fresh, flavorful and robust as it has ever been in the restaurant’s 20-year history. The Rose of Sicily pairs two pan-fried long-stemmed artichokes with a sauté of fresh sage, garlic and tomato with ribbons of prosciutto. The Garlic Chicken is baked and served bone-in topped olive oil, herbs and enough garlic to render any date a safe. The Chicken Parmigiana could be a standard bearer for the New Orleans-style red gravy classic as could the Lasagna, which layers ground beef and Italian sausage between thin sheets of fresh pasta, mozzarella, Parmesan, ricotta, basil, finished with red gravy, and the Veal Bracialoni, which is stuffed with artichoke hearts, bacon, garlic and Parmesan cheese before it is tied together and braised low and slow in that same satisfying red gravy.
Chef Nick Lama of Avo is a third-generation Sicilian. Like the children in most close-knit immigrant families he grew up watching his mother and grandmother recreate the foods of the family’s ancestral home, and he often accompanied his father and grandfather to work their historic seafood market, St. Roch, in the 9th Ward.
At Avo, which translates to “grandfather” or “ancestor,” Lama pays homage to the foods of his ancestors while elevating them with respect and restraint. He recently began offering Saturday and Sunday brunch at the verdant courtyard restaurant he opened in 2015. The menu encourages sharing. Starters include a basket of house made pastries, meatballs and polenta, and an everything spice bagel flatbread with smoked salmon, capers, red onion and leek cream. Large plates include spaghetti alla carbonara, tuna with orzo, hanger steak with soft scrambled eggs and gnocchi alla Romana with egg, sausage, peppers,and arrabbiata.
Vincent’s Italian Cuisine
7839 St. Charles Ave., 866-9313, VincentsItalianCuisine.com
5908 Magazine St., 509-6550, RestaurantAvo.com