St Joseph Altar St Louis At Ursuline 088
Photo by Cheryl Gerber

This Saturday is the Feast Day of St. Joseph, the patron saint of Italy. Let’s talk about how so many people of Sicilian/Italian heritage came to call the New Orleans area home.

Sicilians began arriving at the Port of New Orleans beginning in 1866 to take over the misery-inducing agricultural jobs once held by the recently emancipated slaves who took their newfound freedom and promptly walked off the fields, leaving crops to rot and plantation owners desperate for labor.

Though northern Italy was relatively prosperous due to the introduction of modern industry, southern Italy and Sicily remained mired in grinding poverty. The peasants there were no better off than serfs in a system where they served absentee landlords. As such, they were inspired to leave when given the chance.

To grow Louisiana’s decimated population, in 1866 the Louisiana Bureau of Immigration was formed. Steamship companies started advertising in Sicily for workers willing to make the passage to Louisiana to work the fields, launching the Great Migration. The Sicilians’ steerage, about $40 per person, was paid by the landowners. Being notoriously family-oriented Catholics with large broods, Sicilians were soon pouring into the New Orleans area by the thousands. By1881, three steamships per month traveled between Sicily and New Orleans. The Sicilians worked in indentured servitude to the landowners and lived in the cabins once occupied by slaves. Upon paying off their debts they, too, walked off the fields, many to start their own planting operations, green grocers, markets, and pasta factories.

Housemade Pasta At Gianna
Housemade Pasta at Gianna

So numerous were the Sicilian people in New Orleans that at one time there were more people speaking the Sicilian dialect in the French Quarter (then called “Little Italy”) than in any place in the world outside of Sicily. The Sicilians brought with them the practice of honoring St. Joseph with food-laden altars that were broken down to feed the poor at the end of the day. The Sicilians also brought citrus with them. Many believe citrus took root in the U.S. in either Florida or California where it grows in such abundance. The reality is the Sicilians planted this country’s first citrus crops in Plaquemines Parish, where, according to the Harry & David catalogue, the finest citrus in the world grows today.

Sicily and New Orleans are both gustatory-centric cultures. As such, large Lenten feasts are associated with both cultures. Gianna is upholding this tradition with special lunch and brunch menus this weekend. For both Friday lunch and Saturday brunch Chef Jared Heider will serve Pasta di San Giuseppe, a traditional vegetarian pasta dish topped with breadcrumbs and served in Italian households on St. Joseph’s Day.

More news from Gianna: The celebrated Italian restaurant where the luxury of home-made pasta is a given every single day is now offering an all-day menu on Fridays as well as brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. The rustic Italian menu reflects the popular dinner menu that earned Gianna a spot as a James Beard Foundation Best New Restaurant finalist in 2019.

Gianna Brunch

Chef Heider’s brunch menu features a variety of antipasti, including chopped salad, meatballs, ciabatta garlic bread, strawberries and Burrata, semolina pancakes, and lamb sausage gravy with creamy polenta. The Primi course offers ricotta gnocchi, rigatoni Amatriciana, and lobster Mafaldini. Secondi options include a traditional scampi, crispy short ribs, eggs alla Gianna, and prosciutto flatbread. Contorni, or sides, to choose from are creamy polenta, paesano potatoes, pasta bordelaise, and cornetto.

The Friday all-day menu features antipasti favorites such as grilled octopus, ribollita soup, grilled lion’s mane mushroom, and roasted heirloom carrots, in addition to many of the brunch options. Other menu items include spaghetti and clams, pesce del Giorno, fire-roasted chicken, veal Saltimbocca, and roasted cauliflower. Several brunch items are also available on the all-day menu. See the full menus here.  Go here for reservations or more information.

Son Of A Saint
Emeril Lagasse Foundation President Brian Kish works with Son of a Saint mentees | Provided by Emeril Lagasse Foundation

Son of a Saint is an organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of fatherless boys through mentorship, emotional support, development of life skills, exposure to constructive experiences, and the formation of positive, lasting peer-to-peer relationships. Last week the Emeril Lagasse Foundation (ELF) reaffirmed its support of Son of a Saint through funding to underwrite the organizations’ culinary education program. These funds have helped create the Emeril Lagasse Foundation – Son of a Saint Nutrition Program which teaches its over 200 mentees the importance of a healthy diet rich in fresh food. The program allows mentees to benefit from more lessons focusing on culinary arts—food preparation skills, introduction to new cuisines, and culinary arts as a potential career path. In celebration of the partnership, mentees presented a hands-on nutrition lesson for local board members and those in attendance at a ceremony at Son of a Saint’s temporary headquarters, 2541 Bayou Road.


That’s all from me. Have a great weekend, everyone.