Italians have been present in New Orleans since the days of Europe’s earliest explorations of the region, most arriving in the 19th century. Italian culture’s rich history of food, music and values continues to shape the New Orleans of today.
It wasn’t always easy for Italians in the Big Easy. Many arrived here via the ships traveling directly from Italy on the Palermo-New Orleans route. In fact, almost all of New Orleans original Italian immigrants came from Sicily prior to the Civil War. Once they arrived they parlayed their Old World farming expertise into jobs on plantations or selling fruit and other goods at the French Market. Because of the concentration of Italian immigrants during this time, the French Quarter became known as Little Palermo.
Today local Italian-American Marcello Todaro, the namesake of the Sicilian-style restaurant Marcello’s of New Orleans, offers a menu that includes soups by the bowl and chicken saltimbocca, a grilled-chicken panini sandwich with prosciutto, melted fontina cheese and fresh sage sauce on a crusty St. Joseph’s bun, which can be paired with any of the eatery’s Italian pinot grigios. FYI: A St. Joseph’s bun is known in Italian culture as pan de Giuseppe. The dough, which may be shaped into a variety of forms from crosses to crowns to braids, is intended to grace the table on the Feast of San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s Day) on March 19.
Original Italian immigrants came from Sicily prior to the Civil War
St. Joseph’s Day is celebrated in New Orleans by the descendants of the city’s Italian immigrants who have united through organizations like Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza, established in 1843, and the San Bartolomeo Society, established in 1879. Though many cultural contributions went unacknowledged by official history books for a century or more, the Piazza d’Italia is a permanent landmark that pays tribute to Italian-American influence in New Orleans and is a gathering place for St. Joseph’s Day. Also, the American Italian Cultural Center (AICC), the American Italian Museum and American Italian Sports Hall of Fame are located across from the Piazza d’Italia and are invaluable resources to the preservation of the city’s Italian culture and its celebrations.
Elsewhere, Italian opera is performed at Café Giovanni. Valet parking is available. This fine-dining venue in the French Quarter boasts Belli Baci Lounge, a perfect spot for a Campari while waiting for your table as you enjoy the sound of roaming opera singers (who do take requests). Alligator meatballs are on the menu as well as spaghetti Bolognese. Alligator meatballs are not that different from other meatballs that involves at least two meats, such as veal and sausage. Bolognese sauce is a rich Italian meat and tomato sauce.
At the Italian Barrel you will get equally magnificent and authentic cuisine. A tiny establishment, Italian Barrel boasts a marble-top bar and outdoor tables for the inevitable spillover of diners. Make a reservation if you want to partake in acciughe bianche, fresh white anchovies topped with olive oil and followed with the meaty marrow delicacy of osso buco.
In the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, where many Italian Americans eventually settled, is Andrea’s, a family friendly and authentic Italian restaurant. Andrea’s houses an upscale piano bar called Capri Blu, which showcases New Orleans-style jazz musicians and singers. Beautifully decorated and appointed, the airy Capri Blu is a can’t-miss elegant venue perfect for both late-afternoon and early-evening cocktails. Owner-chef Andrea Apuzzo began his career at the tender age of 7 working in a bakery on the island of Capri in Italy years before life would take him around the world working in numerous venues while earning many prestigious awards.
But no Italian meal is complete without dessert. Open until at least 10 p.m. nightly, Angelo Brocato’s is a traditional Italian sweetshop established in 1905 that serves biscotti, gelato, cannoli and the traditional granita, a semi-frozen fruit dessert that originates in Sicily and which is rarely found in the United States. Take a trip to this charming shop and partake in its cookies and coffees. Other favorites offered at this New Orleans institution include cassata (“dressed-up spumoni”), bisquit tortino (rum-infused almond cake) and sciallotti (gelato and fresh fruit ices in a mold). You will delight in the wall of apothecary jars and the tiny, gleaming marble top tables.