Meatballs And Beyond
Eating Italian In New Orleans
Scroll to the bottom of this article to begin exploring our full reviews of 38 local Italian restaurants.
Fact #1: Everyone in the world who cooks Italian food (and they can indeed be found all over the world) makes the same claim. "I do it the true, authentic Italian way," he or she will say.
You'll hear that whether the talker is a professional chef or Mamma or Nonna cooking in her home. Sometimes the line is spoken more stridently. "What everybody else does may be good, but it's not the real Italian recipe. This" (pointing to the pot in front of the cook) "is the only traditional way to cook this dish."
Don't even bother bringing up the obvious refutation of these claims: that every Italian cook cooks everything in his or her repertoire differently from the way everybody else cooks the same dishes. They can't all be authentic, nor can they all be fraudulent. They can all be personal and good, though, so let's just accept that and forget the word "authentic."
It's the diversity that keeps Italian cookery in the running for World's Best Cuisine. The regional differences in Italy alone make it incredibly fascinating. Add to it all the alterations that Italian Americans have wrought in this country, and it gets better still.
Which brings us to. . .
Fact #2: No Italian food served in the United States is "just like they do it in the Old Country." That's true of all national cuisines that come to these shores, but it's said much more often about Italian food than any other.
A few new restaurants get it close for a little while, but they inevitably drift into the American style of Italian cookery because a) many Italian ingredients cooked routinely in Italy aren't available here; 2) ditto on the Italian cooks; and iii) ditto on the Italian customers. Italian Americans want "authentic" Italian food, which is defined as what their mammas or nonnas cooked, or what they've eaten all their lives at Tony's, their favorite neighborhood Italian cafe. When Italian Americans return from their first trip to Italy, they usually say they were disappointed by the food, because they expected a different kind of authenticity.
However, the attempt by restaurants to present a menu that they can pass off as "just like in Italy" draws a line across the local community of Italian restaurants. It's a fuzzy line, applied in spray paint from a few feet away by a guy with the shakes. But it results in unabashedly New Orleans-style Italian restaurants, rooted in Sicilian cooking. And you have the restaurants that disdain that style and try to be Tuscan, Bolognese, or generically Northern Italian.
I have divided the Italian restaurants here into those two groups, plus a third group for the growing number of neighborhood places specializing in pizza and pasta. All three groups have good practitioners and mediocre ones (although mediocrity is rampant in the pizza-pasta segment, which includes many chains).
All the above notwithstanding, one fact remains true: great Italian cooking, regardless of the style, is essential to the New Orleans eating picture.