Between 1850 and 1870, New Orleans boasted the largest Italian-born population of any city in the United States. Its early Italian immigrants included musicians, business leaders and diplomats. However, by 1910, the city’s French Quarter was a “Little Palermo” with Italian entrepreneurs, laborers and restaurateurs dominating the scene. The majority of Italian immigrants in New Orleans were from Sicily and started to arrive in large numbers in the 1880’s. They arrived in a city where previous Italian immigrants had already established a decent-sized community, dating back to the French era. In fact, the Italian-born Henri de Tonti, as part of a French expedition, explored Louisiana even before New Orleans existed and later became a leader in the fledgling colony. A street named Tonti still exists in the city.
The Sicilian transplants found work on sugar plantations upriver or toiling on New Orleans docks. Macaroni factories popped up around the neighborhood, while Italian vendors sold fruit at the French Market. Eventually, some immigrants were able to open small businesses, such as corner stores or restaurants. Some didn’t stay small, such as Progresso Foods, the soup and condiment giant, which began as a New Orleans import company. Over the decades Italians became integrated into New Orleans culture and society.The city has had two Italian-American mayors, Robert Maestri and Victor Schiro.
Not only had Sicilians established roots in the French Quarter, but those seeking to farm the land moved upriver from the city, to Kenner and Little Farms (now River Ridge). These men were called “truck farmers” because their land was far enough away from the city that they had to haul their crops in by wagon, later by truck. They would sell their produce in the Farmer’s Market, stopping for lunch at one of the groceries along Decatur Street. The grocers would lay out cold antipasti spreads during the day, to sell for lunch. In 1906, Salvatore Lupo opened Central Grocery. Lupo observed that a traditional antipasti spread did not lend itself to America’s rapidly-developing “grab-and-go” culture. He began to combine some of the antipasti items, such as mortadella, cheese, ham and olive salad, on loaves of round Italian bread, creating the now-famous muffuletta sandwich. The truck farmers could pick up a muffuletta and eat their antipasti as a sandwich on the return drive to Kenner. Other groceries and restaurants picked up on the muffuletta, which became a New Orleans institution, second only to the po-boy sandwich.
The tourists waiting patiently for muffulettas in the aisles of the Central Grocery, today, likely have no idea they are surrounded by what was once a standard fixture of many New Orleans neighborhoods: the Italian-owned corner store. These grocery stores once dotted the city’s landscape, built by immigrants who flocked to New Orleans and its surrounding parishes.
When the brand new French Opera House opened in New Orleans in the 1859, the call went out to Italian musicians. Local business leaders didn’t need to look very far, since the city of New Orleans already had a bustling Italian population. Living and working side-by-side with African-Americans, the Italians shared with them their own distinctive forms of music, which encompassed folk and classical traditions. The sons of these early immigrants, many of whom were hired to play at the French Opera House, would go on to become familiar names with the popularization of jazz.
One such artist was Joe Venuti who introduced the violin into the jazz ensemble and teamed up with his boyhood friend, Eddie Lang (born Salvatore Massaro), for some groundbreaking recordings, which eventually led to their being hired for Bing Crosby’s famous radio show band. Lenny Payton (born Salvatore D’Angelo) arranged many of Duke Ellington’s numbers in the 1940’s. Another Italian American, William Russo, carried on this tradition with his Chicago Jazz Ensemble. Nick LaRocca was an important Italian-American jazz musician at the birth of the genre, while New Orleans-born Louis Prima became a prominent singer and trumpeter during the swing era.
The elegant Hotel Monteleone, first established by a Sicilian shoemaker, is a landmark in the French Quarter and is still run by the Monteleone family generations later. The Hotel Monteleone is one of the last great family owned and operated hotels in New Orleans. Before he became founder of this famous New Orleans hotel, Antonio Monteleone was an industrious businessman who operated a very successful shoe factory in Sicily. Antonio had heard great things about America and the call of adventure motivated him to pack the tools of his trade and head for the “land of opportunity.” Antonio arrived in New Orleans around 1880 and opened a cobbler shop on Royal Street, the busest thoroughfare of commerce and banking at the time. In 1886, Monteleone purchased a small hotel on the corner of Royal and Iberville streets. When the nearby Commercial Hotel became available for purchase, Monteleone took the opportunity to expand. Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Piano Bar & Lounge is the only revolving bar in New Orleans. The 25-seat carousel bar turns on 2,000 large steel rollers at a constant rate of one revolution every 15 minutes. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Carousel Bar was also the site of a popular nightclub, the Swan Room, where musicians such as Liberace and Louis Prima performed. The hotel has a long history in the city and, being one of the premier downtown New Orleans hotels, the Hotel Monteleone caters to the world during the famous festival of Mardi Gras.
The Italians began social clubs and benevolent organizations as other ethnic groups in New Orleans did. The oldest group began before the Civil War, but more and more formed with the influx of Sicilian immigrants during the last part of the 19th century. These organizations were often linked to a specific region in Italy to preserve customs among members and helped provide a support network for new arrivals. As the Sicilians established themselves, community’s leaders lobbied Archbishop Perche to provide them with a church larger than the wood-frame structure on Decatur Street and Esplanade Avenue that they were using at the time. In 1873, the Archbishop gave the Sicilians permission to fix up the old Mortuary Chapel. In 1903, Archbishop Chapelle turned the chapel and its parishioners over to the Dominican order, whose priests encouraged and nurtured the Old-World traditions and rituals of the Sicilians. By 1915, however, the popularity of the Storyville red-light district, along with the construction of Terminal Station made the new church less appealing as a focal point for the Italian community. Archbishop Blenk agreed and allowed the Sicilians to take over the an old chapel on Chartres Street, next to the Old Ursuline Convent, and the church was renamed St. Mary’s Italian Church. Even though several other churches in metro New Orleans have strong Italian roots, St. Mary’s on Chartres Street is still the official “home” of Italian Catholics in the city.
St. Joseph’s Altars
Each March 19th local families, descended from Sicilian immigrants, erect elaborate altars laden with bread, cookies and other food in honor of St. Joseph. The story goes that Sicily was ravaged by drought and famine centuries ago. The people prayed to their patron, St. Joseph, for deliverance from these trials. The rains came, the crops grew and the people of Sicily never forgot their promises to honor St. Joseph. Sicilian families would lay out baked goods and other delicacies on a table on March 19. These offerings usually started out small and often grew into multi-family and even parish-wide efforts. Bakeries would donate loaves of bread shaped as crosses and other religious symbols. Grocers would donate other foodstuffs and all would be arranged for display on a beautifully decorated altar. Meat was usually not part of the spread on a St. Joseph’s altar, since it was not permitted on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19th falling during the season of Lent).
As the Sicilian influence in New Orleans grew, so did the tradition of the St. Joseph’s Altar. Families would take pride in setting up an altar in the living room or perhaps taking over an entire garage. Parishes and schools now prepare altars and many families contribute either baked items or cash to the cause. The faithful then go around the city, from altar to altar, visiting family and friends. On the way out, folks pick up a “lucky bean,” a fava bean, symbolizing the restoration of the crops in Sicily. In New Orleans St. Joseph’s Day has also been adopted as one of the few non-Carnival (Mardi Gras) days of celebration for the city.
The Sicilians brought their culture and cuisine with them, particularly Italian-style tomato sauce. Living on an island meant many Sicilians made their living as fishermen and their diet reflected this. Being close to the sea was one of the reasons so many Sicilians didn’t move further inland when they arrived at the Port of New Orleans. Just as New Orleans absorbed the French, Spanish and Afro-Caribbeans before them, the city absorbed the Italians. New Orleanians took the idea of Italian-style tomato sauce and mixed it with roux, their flour-and-fat base for sauces. Over time, the classic “red sauce” became “red gravy,” called that to distinguish it from the “brown gravy” in gumbo that New Orleanians have made for generations. To make the distinction between traditional cuisine and the modified style of Italians raised in New Orleans, some restaurants and restaurant reviewers began to refer to the modified style as “Creole-Italian” cooking.
The Rise Of Creole-Italian Cooking
Although they were treated to the same prejudices that newcomers usually get, the Sicilians saw their food immediately accepted in America. However, 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 1900’s a style of Italian cooking found nowhere else was established in New Orleans. A great example of this change is what happened to the classic Italian recipe for scampi. There were no scampi here, so Italian cooks used the plentiful local Gulf shrimp instead. This dish evolved into a new dish: the spicy, buttery and misnamed “barbecue shrimp”. The dish spread to restaurants and homes and is now one of the most famous New Orleans dishes.
Like the many other earlier influences, Italian cuisine contributed subtle nuances of taste. From the Italians, the Creoles cultivated a love of garlic and its presence is encountered just barely beneath the surface in many classic Creole dishes. Conversely, the Spanish roots of the Creole cuisine had a profound impact on Sicilian-American foods. The most unique feature of the cuisine is its tomato sauce, commonly referred to as “red gravy” or “tomato gravy.” This rich sauce, used over meats and pasta, has dozens of variations from family to family. Some red gravies are based on a brown roux. Some contain eggplant. Others contain anchovies, whole boiled eggs or meat. Two consistent threads in this red gravy are the addition of sugar and the frying of tomato paste! After the vegetables are sautéed in olive oil, tomato paste is added and, literally, fried before the liquids are added.
The new Creole-Italian tomato sauce was different from the food of Sicily and is marked by smooth, sweet, thick sauce with a bit more red pepper than most. This is most often served over pasta or meat stuffed with bread crumbs – a common Sicilian-inspired dish. Meatballs, anise-flavored Italian sausage and roast beef, simmered in a red sauce called Daube, are all regarded by local Italian families as the best dishes for a big Sunday family dinner.Today, some of New Orleans’ finest restaurants are owned by descendants of Creole-Italians. They serve excitingly different food that started out many years ago as robust Sicilian fare but, through years of Creole influence, now enjoy a piquant flavor – due largely to the Spanish love of ground chilies.
New Orleans Creole Italian Red Gravy
Here is one of many ways to make this sauce.
Makes about 3-1/2 quarts
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 6 cups finely chopped onion
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon. dried basil
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 6 ounces tomato paste
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 (29 oz) cans tomato puree
- 3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over a medium heat. Add the onions and saute, stirring occasionally for about 20 minutes, or until the onions are translucent but not browned.
Add the garlic, dried basil and the three peppers and cook for 5 more minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir to coat the onions. Cook the tomato paste with the onions until the color deepens slightly to a red mahogany color. Add the bay leaves and all other ingredients.
Bring to a simmer; reduce heat if necessary to maintain a very low simmer and cook for about one hour, stirring occasionally. Remove the bay leaves before serving.
New Orleans Italian Shrimp over Fried Green Tomatoes
- 24 Jumbo Louisiana shrimp
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 8 cloves fresh garlic, sliced thin
- 1/3 cup chopped green onions
- 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 2 cups white wine
- 1/4 cup dried Italian seasoning
- 2 teaspoons blackening seasoning
- 2 teaspoons lemon pepper
- 1/4 cup fresh basil
- 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1/3 cup butter
- 3-4 lemons, juiced
Or you can use my oven fried green tomato recipe from the post: https://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/02/04/mardi-gras-time/
- 6 sliced green tomatoes
- 2 cups milk
- 4 eggs
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups Italian seasoned bread crumbs
- Oil for frying
Saute garlic in olive oil. Add shrimp, green onions and rosemary. When shrimp begin to turn pink, add white wine and the rest of seasonings, Worcestershire, butter and lemon. Let simmer until sauce comes together and shrimp are cooked.
Combine milk with beaten eggs. Dredge sliced tomatoes in flour, then egg wash, then press firmly into bread crumbs, fry until golden brown.
Place tomatoes on a serving plate. Spoon shrimp over top of tomatoes.
Daube a wonderful example of how French and Italian cooking merged in this food mecca, be it in restaurants or at home. For daube, also called beef daube and Italian daube, the marriage of French and Italian begins with the French style of braising beef with red wine, vegetables and herbs. And this is where the Italian forces come in with their red gravy ( known everywhere else as spaghetti sauce) with or without a roux base. Some recipes call for cooking the daube in wine and stock and preparing the red gravy separately. However, in today’s rushed lifestyle, most cooks prefer to put it all together in one big pot. Various cuts of beef suit daube, including the rump, round, shoulder or chuck. Instead of larding, a stuffing of garlic provides flavor. Old Creole recipes used lard for the braising, too, but olive oil substitutes as a healthy and tasty alternative. Don’t be put off by the long slow-cooking process. The dish can simmer on the stove with little attention while you catch up on rest and relaxation. I am sure this recipe can also be adapted for the slow cooker.
- 3-pound rump roast
- 5 cloves garlic, 2 slivered and 3 minced
- Salt and Pepper
- Creole seasoning, store-bought (without salt) or homemade, recipe below
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 bell pepper, chopped
- 2 ribs celery, chopped
- 6-ounce can tomato paste
- 8-ounce can tomato sauce
- 1 cup red wine
- 14-ounce can beef broth
- 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne to taste
- Pinch of sugar
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
With a sharp, small knife cut slits in the roast about 2 inches apart and stuff with slivers of garlic. Rub roast generously with salt, pepper and Creole seasoning. Heat oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven and brown roast well on all sides over medium-high heat. When browned, take roast out of pot and set aside.
In the same oil, saute onion, bell pepper and celery over medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add minced garlic and cook for 5 more minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, until it begins to brown, about 10 minutes. Add tomato sauce and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 more minutes. Add wine, beef broth, Italian seasoning, cayenne, salt if needed and sugar. Stir well.
Return roast to pot, fat side up, turn heat to low, cover and simmer for 4 hours or until roast is very tender. Stir well every hour and turn roast over halfway through cooking. Sprinkle with parsley and serve over cooked pasta.
- 2 tablespoons onion powder
- 2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano leaves
- 2 tablespoons dried basil
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon white pepper
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon celery seed
- 5 tablespoons sweet paprika
Combine in food processor and pulse until well-blended.
Italian Chicken with New Orleans Spaghetti Bordelaise
- 12 chicken thighs
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Cayenne Pepper
- 4 heads garlic, cloves separated and peeled
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 2 cups white wine
- 3 lemons, quartered
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- Spaghetti Bordelaise, recipe follows
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Place the chicken in a large bowl and lightly coat with salt, pepper and cayenne.
Crush half of the garlic cloves with the back of a heavy knife. Leave the remaining cloves whole.
Heat 1/2 cup of the oil in a roasting pan large enough to hold the chicken in one layer, over 2 burners on medium-high heat. Add the chicken and sear on both sides. Add the crushed garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and add the remaining ingredients, stirring well to evenly distribute.
Cover the pan tightly and roast for 1 hour. Uncover and roast until the chicken is brown and tender and the garlic is caramelized, about 30 minutes, basting occasionally.
Remove from the oven. Transfer the chicken to a platter and sprinkle with the parsley. Spoon the pan juices over the chicken or serve on the side.
- 1 pound dried spaghetti
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup green onions
- 1 tablespoon white wine
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander.
Meanwhile, in a medium pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and green onions and cook, stirring, until fragrant and starting to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Add the wine, basil, oregano, thyme, salt and pepper and cook for 2 minutes. Add the butter and parsley and cook for 2 minutes.
Return the drained spaghetti to the pot. Add the sauce and toss well to coat. Place in a large serving bowl and sprinkle with the Parmesan.
New Orleans Apple Fritters
Fritters or Fratelle (Italian for fritters) are deep-fried batters containing sweet (fruit & nuts) or savory (cheese, fish, vegetables) fillings.They are served throughout Italy during Carnival time. This recipe is another example of the merging of cuisines in New Orleans. The French-Creole colonists who came to inhabit the city in its earliest days originally introduced beignets to New Orleans. They are made from square-cut pieces of yeast dough without holes, fried and then covered with mounds of powdered sugar. The Italian version adds fruit.
Makes 20 fritters
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 cups 1/4-inch-diced, peeled, chopped Fuji or Gala apples
- 2 tablespoons light-brown sugar
- 1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon, divided
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- Pinch of salt
- 2 eggs, separated
- 3/4 cup apple cider
- 1 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- Vegetable oil, for frying
Melt butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add apples and saute, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes. Sprinkle in brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and continue to cook 2 to 3 minutes longer, or until apples are lightly coated with syrup. Remove pan from heat and set aside to cool.
In a small bowl, whisk together egg yolks and apple cider. Stir in the cooled apple mixture.
In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder and 1 tablespoon sugar. Make a well in the center of the flour and add apple mixture. Gradually incorporate flour into wet ingredients, mixing gently with a whisk until uniform. Set batter aside for 20 minutes.
Fit a hand mixer with the whisk attachments and beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Gently fold whites into batter until completely blended.
In a medium bowl, combine remaining 1/2 cup sugar with remaining 1 teaspoon cinnamon.
Add enough oil to a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or a deep cast iron skillet to come 4 inches up the sides of pan. Heat oil over medium-high heat to 350 degrees F. When the oil is hot, carefully add 2-tablespoon scoops of batter, working in batches and being careful not to overcrowd pan. Maintain oil’s heat between 300 and 350 degrees by adjusting burner as necessary.
Fry fritters 4 to 5 minutes until golden and cooked through, turning them as needed for even color. Remove fritters with a slotted spoon or strainer, drain briefly, then toss them in cinnamon sugar. Transfer fritters to a serving platter. Repeat with remaining batter. Right before serving, roll fritters a final time in cinnamon sugar.
Want to read a more in-depth look at Italian American family life and culture, I recommend you read:
The author writes,”A Girl From the Hill: My Mother’s Journey from Italian Girl to American Woman is a collection of essays reflecting my mother’s experiences growing up in Providence, Rhode Island during the early 20th Century. This book depicts many aspects of my mother’s life growing up with Italian parents in Providence, Rhode Island during the Great Depression. It also speaks to all mothers and daughters about the bonds that tie us forever, even when we are apart. What I discovered is that I am more like my mother than I ever imagined.”
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- West Virginia’s Little Italy Communities (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Baltimore’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Western Pennsylvania’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
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- Italian American Neighborhoods – Boston (jovinacooksitalian.com)
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