I can’t imagine life without red gravy, muffulettas, osso buco, stuffed artichokes and eggplant parmigiana. They are a part of our cuisine as much as French sauces and Cajun roux, thanks to Sicilian immigrants. If tourists went into neighborhoods, they would find hundreds of restaurants that bill themselves Creole-Italian. And, if they dined in a local’s home, they may well be treated to a veal piccata or seafood pasta.
Our Italian cooking represents the style of southern Italy, heavily tomato-based and flavored with oregano, basil, garlic and peppers. It is thought that red gravy may be the most important dish Sicilians contributed to the local community. Some combine tomato sauce with a roux while most do not. Either way , it’s called red gravy.
Tens of thousands of Italian immigrants boarded ships in Palermo in the late 19th century, headed to New Orleans, then the second largest port in the nation. They worked on sugar plantations, labored at the docks and truck-farmed in areas such as Kenner and River Ridge. Eventually, huge numbers were attracted to the food industry, opening mom-and-pop restaurants, corner grocery stores, pasta factories, meat and fish markets, bakeries and gelato shops.
Progresso, now owned by General Mills, was founded here in 1925 by Italian immigrants Vincent Taormina and cousins Frank and Joseph Uddo. Descendant Michael Uddo, now executive chef of Café B, says that dishes on his menu such as veal meatball sliders and caprese salad reflect his grandmother’s cooking. “The Sicilian style absolutely influences my style today,” he said.
Tony Bologna, owner of the popular Venezia and the great-grandson of Sicilian immigrants, says his customers tell him his red sauce “reminds them of their mama’s. It’s Italian comfort food,” he said. “When our great-grandparents moved here, they cooked what they had available,” he said. In Sicily, they made meatballs from sardines because meat was rarely available. They adapted those styles to local ingredients, creating Creole-Italian.
Some of New Orleans’ cutting edge chefs cook with creative intuition and a style more representative of northern Italy. Chef Alon Shaya said he gave up his job, girlfriend, apartment and cat to move to Italy for a year because he was “passionate” about Italian cooking. Before opening Dominica in partnership with chef John Besh, “I spent my life savings, working for free and traveling,” he said, and was rewarded with a new outlook on the regions of Italy, its people and their cooking, which was then reflected on his menus at Dominica and Pizza Dominica. Crabmeat on pounded veal, roasted oysters with breadcrumbs and oregano, and spaghetti bordelaise are examples he cites of Creole-Italian cooking. At Pizza Dominica, he said, “We’ve started square pizzas that are very much Sicilian, Roman-style pizza.”
Meanwhile, his award-winning Israeli restaurant Shaya reflects his background growing up in Philadelphia. At 16, he began working for Italian restaurants, and the roasted peppers and olive oil reminded him of the Israeli food he ate as a child.
At Napoleon House, food has been served by Sicilian immigrants and their descendants for 102 years. Its most popular dish is the muffuletta, a word that in Sicily meant the type of bread that is used today for the sandwich, invented in 1906 by Salvador Lupo, owner of Central Grocery.
Chris Montero, Napoleon House’s executive chef, said the bread was originally made by Union Bakery, owned by a cousin of the Impastato family, who recently sold Napoleon House to restaurateur Ralph Brennan. The famous bar-restaurant also serves spicy meatballs with an old-style red sauce and Italian braided bread, used for bruschetta with mozzarella, basil and tomatoes.
Meatballs and spaghetti are weekly fare for many local families, Italian or not, and fava beans, cardoons and cucuzza squash, Sicilian favorites, still grow in some backyards, but perhaps the most public spread of Sicilian cookery comes on March 19, when St. Joseph Day altars are built to express gratitude to the saint and share food, including cross-shaped bread and other religious symbols.
Roll Out the Dough
A guide to making your own pasta
The key to pasta making, according to legendary chef Goffredo Fraccaro, is letting your dough rest. “Give it a nice rest,” he would say, patting it lovingly, “nice rest.”
My husband Doug and I quote Fraccaro, chef-owner of now-closed La Riviera in Metairie, whenever we make pasta. Just as we get it to that soft round of dough, we pat it gently as if it were going to sleep and say, “nice rest, nice rest.”
Fraccaro and most old-line Italian chefs would tell you that fresh pasta is the heart of Italian cooking and should be done whenever possible. It doesn’t fit that well into modern schedules, but when time allows, it can be a joy to make and eat.
Following, is a recipe adapted from “Cooking with Chris and Goffredo,” by Fraccaro and the late Chris Kerageorgiou, former owner of La Provence in Lacombe, published in 1991.
Basic Pasta Dough
4 cups all-purpose flour
5 large eggs
Pinch of salt
½ teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1. Place flour on a large wooden cutting board. Form a well in the center of the flour.
2. Break eggs into a bowl and whisk together. Add salt and olive oil and whisk. Pour mixture into the well. Using your hands, begin to mix the flour into the eggs from the inside edges of flour. Continue bringing the flour into the egg mixture until a dough is formed into a ball. You may not use all of the flour. Brush excess off the board, and re-flour the board. Knead the ball of dough for 5 or 6 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. Cover with a cloth and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour.
3. When the dough has rested, it is ready to cut and roll out according to the type of pasta desired, preferably by a pasta machine.
Makes about 1 pound.