All major U.S. cities mix many cultures. To use a cooking analogy, some end up bland consommés. New Orleans is spicy jambalaya, every bite subtly different in texture and taste. French, Spanish and African American are the main cultural ingredients, but New Orleans wouldn’t be New Orleans if any of the others were extracted.
That’s surely true of the Italian culture, which gets a deserved night in the spotlight October 10 in one of the most fun New Orleans events of the year, A Taste of Italy. This night of merriment at the American Italian Cultural Center downtown next to the famous Piazza d’Italia, celebrates the Italian-American influence in New Orleans.
How deeply rooted is that influence? Tonti Street in the city is named for Henri de Tonti, a soldier and fur trader born in Italy who helped command the first European arrivals to the region.
The son of an Italian expatriate, Tonti grew up in France, fought for France against Spain, and was top aide to French explorer Robert de la Salle on the first journey down the lower Mississippi in 1682. By then Tonti wore a prosthetic metal hook in place of a hand lost in battle, yet his journals and letters provide much of what is known about that historic expedition.
The Italian connection with New Orleans only begins with Tonti, though. Artifacts from throughout the centuries of that association will be on display during Taste of Italy, as the American Italian Museum inside the culture center is open for special hours. The museum, normally open Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., showcases photos, articles, family genealogies and more.
Food, Music and Fun in New Orleans
But the prevailing theme of the evening is food, music, dancing and fun. The music and dancing will take place at the restored Piazza d’Italia. The lineup of musical performers includes the New Orleans Opera Association and the uber popular local 1960s-style swing back known as the Yat Pack.
Foodies associate New Orleans with two all-time favorites of Euro-American cuisine. Italians can’t claim the beignet—the popular powdery pastry arrived from France sometime a century after La Salle and Tonti. But as the mighty muffuletta, there’s no disputing the origin of this fabulous overstuffed sandwich—the who, what or where.
Origin of the Muffuletta
The muffeletta came to be at Central Grocery, a small market on Decatur Street opened in 1906 by a Sicilian immigrant named Salvatore Lupo. His customers included fellow immigrants who often stopped for lunch after delivering produce to the nearby farmer’s market.
They’d order ham, provolone, salami, marinated olive salad, and hard bread, which they’d eat separately per Sicilian custom. But doing so was awkward. There were no tables or chairs for the men to use as they ate. Each man sat upon a box or barrel and balanced the equivalent of a big antipasto platter on his lap, without the platter. Finally, the grocer had an inspiration. Why not instead combine everything between halves from a loaf? And here, try this muffuletta loaf. It’s softer and easier to handle.
This new, less crumbly and less messy way to eat lunch caught on. So did its shorthand name—the “muffuletta.” And, as word spread through the Italian neighborhoods and beyond, so did the habit of coming to the little grocery store to buy or eat lunch. As New Orleans tourism grew, so did tourist appetites for muffulettas. Today visitors come from around the world to try the famous seed-coated sandwiches—and Central Grocery still sells them at the original location, 923 Decatur St. in the French Quarter.
Other New Orleans restaurants present their own versions of muffulettas on their menus, including some of the eateries scheduled to provide food at the Taste of Italy. Indeed some of the best Italian restaurants in New Orleans will showcase their specialties. Among theose restaurants:
New Orleans Taste of Italy Restaurants
Amici Ristorante & Bar
3218 Magazine St., New Orleans, LA 70115
This family-run Garden District favorite is authentic Italian, right down to the coal oven custom-built in Sicily, and the pasta and canoli recipes handwritten by the family matriarch generations ago near Palermo.
Chef Duke’s Café Giovanni
117 Decatur St., New Orleans, LA 70130
Chef Duke LoCiciero infuses all the culinary influences of New Orleans in his Italian creations with a skill and creativity few others can match. From his creamy Pasta Gambino and spicy Southern Style Voodoo Shrimp to his takes on muffulettas and po’ boys, Chef Duke makes fine dining fun dining at his restaurant, next to the popular resort Club La Pension.
La Divina Café e Gelateria
621 St Peter St, New Orleans, LA 70130
Nothing better embodied the simple joys Katrina and Carmelo Turillo experienced during their courtship in Florence than evening walks to the local ice cream parlor, or gelateria. The gelatos and sorbettos they serve today are made from scratch using secrets the couple gathered crisscrossing Italy studying the process.
500 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70130
Enjoy all the staples of New Orleans cuisine, including muffulettas and an assortment of po’ boys in a historic building some believe might have become the exiled emperor’s residence had he lived long enough for his friends to complete their plans to bring him here.
Two Tony’s Restaurant
8536 Pontchartrain Blvd., New Orleans, LA 70124
In business for almost 30 years, Two Tony’s is beloved for its traditional authentic Italian dishes—and especially its marinara sauce.
Pascal’s Manale Restaurant
1838 Napoleon Ave., New Orleans, LA 70115
This 100-year-old restaurant and raw oyster bar has a rich tradition for Italian cuisine but for the last half-century or more might be best known for its incomparable BBQ Shrimp.
Taste of Italy begins with a reception for American Italian Culture Center patrons from 6 to 7 p.m. General admission festivities are from 7 to 10 p.m. All tickets, including patron level, will stay on sale until the event.
If you’re part of or partial to Italian culture, you can’t choose a better time to take a New Orleans vacation.