The Rise Of Creole-Italian Cooking
In the late 1800s, a new culinary influence came to New Orleans. A wave of immigrants from Italy--most of them fleeing extreme poverty in Sicily--arrived in the United States. New Orleans being the port that it was, many Sicilians wound up here. They liked what they saw, and sent word back to their families and friends to move here.
By the turn of the century, these new Orleanians had turned the French Quarter into the Italian Quarter--particularly in the vicinity of the French Market. They opened many businesses related to food, from grocery stores importing Italian goods to macaroni factories to restaurants. And they began celebrating St. Joseph--the patron saint of Sicily--with a joyous celebration with a lot of distinctive food.
Although they were treated to the same prejudices that poor newcomers always get (especially when they arrive in large numbers), the Sicilians saw their food immediately accepted and loved in America. Cookbooks from around 1900 already included spaghetti, tomato sauces and other obviously Italian dishes.
What happened in New Orleans was a little different. The established Creole ingredients and cooking styles began to be adopted by Italian cooks, and vice-versa. By the early 1900s a style of Italian cooking found nowhere else was well established in New Orleans.
The best example of this is what happened to the classic Italian recipe for the Mediterranean crustacean called scampo. There were no scampi here, so Italian cooks used the plentiful local shrimp instead. At Pascal's Manale restaurant, this evolved into a new dish: the spicy, buttery, and mis-named barbecue shrimp. The dish spread to other restaurants and homes, and is now one of the three or four best standard New Orleans dishes.
The new Creole-Italian flavor was as different from the modern food of Sicily as Sicilian food is different from Northern Italian cooking. But the change was so gradual that most New Orleans Italians claim that they cook everything just like their grandmothers did, according to the one and only authentic Sicilian recipe. They always get a surprise when they go to Sicily for the first time and find the food nothing like their own.
Creole-Italian cooking today is marked by smooth, sweet, thick tomato sauces with a bit more red pepper than most. At its best, this can be good. Especially when it goes over a pasta or meat stuffed with bread crumbs, veal, herbs and garlic--a common Sicilian-inspired dish. Meatballs, anise-flavored Italian sausage, and the roast beef simmered in red sauce called daube are all regarded by local Italian families as the sacred center of a big Sunday family dinner.
As in most of America, the passing generations allowed a few regrettable evolutions. We've adopted the practice of dumping too much sauce over a pile of cooked pasta on the serving plate, instead of tossing the pasta in the sauce to coat it. We've moved pasta from a preliminary course to a side dish, making for grossly oversize entrees with everything piled up together. When there's cheese, there's too much of it, bubbling in the surplus of red sauce on top of the everything else. Quantity of portion has become the main draw in too many restaurants serving Creole-Italian food.
But the good restaurants working in that style can still warm your heart like no others.
Click on any of the restaurants listed below for a detailed, updated review.