Molto NOLA: Italian Heritage in New Orleans

by Sally Tunmer on June 5, 2012

in Food, GoNOLA Radio, Music

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The Italians have made their impression on New Orleans since the 1850s when an influx of Sicilians entered the city. Since then, their home-style flair and flavor have harmoniously intertwined with their kindred New Orleans spirits. Our hosts Sunpie Barnes, Lorin Gaudin, George Ingmire and Mikko hash it out with a New Orleanian who knows a thing or two about Italian food in this round-table rap session – a GoNOLA Radio first.
GoNOLA Radio New Orleans podcast
Manning’s chef Anthony Spizale’s obsession with food began when his family started growing gagutza in their back yard. Chef Spizale has been a mainstay in the New Orleans culinary circuit for many years cooking classic local cuisine influenced by his Italian descent.  To find out more about New Orleans’ Italian heritage and Chef Spizale – and what the heck a gagutza is – listen to this episode of GoNOLA Radio.

GoNOLA Radio is a free New Orleans podcast hosted by Sunpie Barnes, Lorin Gaudin, George Ingmire and Mikko about the food, music and culture of the Crescent City. Subscribe to GoNOLA Radio on iTunes or download to your mobile device on Stitcher. GoNOLA Radio features music by Cale Pellick.

 

Podcast Transcript

Sunpie: Welcome to GoNOLA radio.

My name is Sunpie Barnes and I will be your host of hosts as we explore New
Orleans to learn about the city’s rich cultural heritage, food and music.
We bring you experts, the real deal experts, who will talk with you about
the people who make New Orleans such a wonderful place to live and visit.
It’s GoNOLA radio.

Today our hosts Lorin Gaudin, George Ingmire and Mikko brought along
special guest chef Anthony Spizale from Manning’s restaurant. Welcome to
the show guys, and gal.

Lorin: Hello.

Mikko: Hello.

George: Hey.

Anthony: Buongiorno.

Sunpie: Today we’ll be talking about Italian heritage in New Orleans,
which, as you may have heard, there’s a lot of. Since the 1850s Italians,
especially Sicilians, have brought their traditions from the homeland right
to our backyard. Italian culture has seamlessly become a part of New
Orleans culture, from the muffaletta to the New Orleans Italian Marching
Club. Now, Lorin, as you know, there’s no shortage of delicious, authentic
Italian in New Orleans. What are some of the great Italian restaurants that
you can find here in the city of New Orleans that bring back that slice of
Italy?

Lorin: It’s a really great question because, in truth, the word “authentic”
and Italian in New Orleans is almost an impossible thing to put your finger
on, because what happens here, like with every other culture of people that
has arrived in New Orleans, they’ve mixed in with the existing peoples.

Sunpie: Yeah.

Lorin: So what they have, coming from Sicily or other parts of Italy,
coming to New Orleans, they blended with the Creole people, what we have is
what we finally refer to as Creole-Italians, and that’s just the way it is
here in New Orleans.

Sunpie: Great idea.

Lorin: It’s beautiful, and the food reflects that. It’s a little bit
different. People that visit from other areas where they have a heavy
Italian population of a more, I use this lightly, traditional nature, they
say, “Oh, this is not the same. The red gravy is different.” The red sauce,
red gravy (we have red gravy, we’re in New Orleans) is different. Yes, it’s
different. It’s a little bit sweeter here because we use bell pepper in a
lot in our cookery, and so there it is right in the sauce too.

Sunpie: Lots of bell pepper, yeah.

Lorin: And it’s so interesting. So, where can you find really interesting,
that amalgam, we love that word, that blend, let’s use that one instead, of
the Creole-Italian food? Well, my goodness, you can just about go anywhere.
Think of the names of the restaurants, [Mandina's], [Venizia's]

Sunpie: Been there, love it.

Lorin: Right, you know? You have Vincent’s Italian Cuisine; you’ve got
Maximo’s; Dominica, which is really new in this area; and [Alon Shia], I
mean, how wonderful is that, to have him as a Jewish guy, Jewish gal like
me, here we are diving into this incredible Italian cuisine, and he does
Roman Italian sort of blend there, and even does Roman Jewish food at
certain times of year. So you have that kind of a rustica, rustic Italian
cuisine, but what we think of here as that Creole-Italian food, we think of
those places like Venizia’s and Mandina’s and [Bricotta's] and those are
the places where you…

Sunpie: I think of them often.

Lorin: Often, right? Where we get that red gravy, where we get that [dobe],
which again is a blend of the French and the Italian.

Sunpie: Don’t make me leave this interview early. Okay, miss?

Lorin: I’m sorry, I definitely don’t want that to happen. And I’m so
excited because sitting right here next to me, one of my buddies, who is
one of my very favorite Italian chefs in New Orleans, is Chef Anthony
Spizale. Anthony and I have known each other quite a long time, [Canner]
raised, Canner born, his family too. They grow their vegetables in the back
yard.

Sunpie: The real deal.

Lorin: And these are serious cooks, old school, and couldn’t be more
Italian, and we talk about this all the time, from St. Joseph’s Day and all
the same.

Anthony: Yes we did.

Lorin: Welcome to the show.

Anthony: Hey, guys.

Sunpie: Hey.

Lorin: Yeah, we love having you. Anthony, your family is old school New
Orleans Italian. What does that mean?

Anthony: Both sides of the family. It’s special. It’s a unique way to live
your life. It’s really kind of fun. Everything from the day I was born was
food related, was related around a meatball, gagutza, Italian cake cookies.

Lorin: That is, the gagutza, most people don’t know what that is.

Sunpie: I love it.

Lorin: What is a gagutza?

Anthony: A gagutza is an Italian squash. It can get 4 feet long. My dad
grows them in the backyard, we had so many of them these year.

Sunpie: Oh, that’s what those things are.

Anthony: You can smother them down with Creole tomatoes and basil and
shrimp during the summer. I’ve pickled so many last year and I still have
them in the cabinet. They’re outstanding. It’s one of my favorite
vegetables right now.

Sunpie: What was that address, that garden back there?

Anthony: I’ll send you an invite.

Sunpie: Okay.

George: I was going to say, you sure don’t sound excited about your food.

Anthony: Oh, no way.

Lorin: I know, isn’t it sad?

Anthony: It’s boring.

George: I say with a mouthful of food that you brought, by the way. Just in
case you were wondering.

Lorin: This is a terrific example. Anthony, you always find a way, somehow,
no matter where you’re cooking, no matter what you’re doing, to infuse some
of the Italian heritage foods. And so, what we’re holding in our hands and
munching as we are interviewing you are basically meat pies, or empanadas
if we want to kind of hearken back to that Spanish heritage and the
Italian, filled with…

Anthony: Olive salad.

Lorin: And?

Anthony: Handmade, hand crushed. Mortadella, prosciutto, Genoa salami,
garlic, everything that goes in olive salad.

Sunpie: Talk to me, talk to me.

Lorin: So it’s like a muffaletta meat pie?

Anthony: Yup.

Sunpie: Yes.

Lorin: These are gorgeous. I mean, this is, it’s so perfect. The
muffaletta, do we know a lot about exactly where, how that evolved?

Anthony: I’ve never researched it.

Lorin: You haven’t, but it’s something, does your family, do you guys eat
them?

Anthony: Yeah.

Lorin: And you make them?

Anthony: We make them. My dad still makes me, when I’m off, go ride to
Central and get him muffalettas. When I worked in the French Quarter, every
time I’d get off work, he’d be calling me, “I need muffalettas from
Central’s.” “Okay, dad. I’m going to take a walk over there.”

Lorin: So, Central Grocery.

Mikko: What I love about your meat pie is a muffaletta you can eat while
you’re driving.

Anthony: Hey, now you’re talking.

Mikko: That’s important if you’re on the bridge as long as I am.

Lorin: It’s a convenience. That’s perfect, well Central Grocery is one of
the places that lays claim to fame for inventing the muffaletta, along with
Frank’s. That seems to be a really big issue and then, when we’re talking
Italian food, who did it first. I’m not going there, we’re not going to
decide here what the answer is.

Sunpie: It’s right across the street from my office, that’s all I know.

Anthony: And do you serve it warm or do you serve it cold? I like a
muffaletta room temperature. I want to taste everything. You warm it up and
the cheeses get ooey and gooey. I’m not excited about it that way.

Lorin: I’m a cold muffaletta eater, too. I like muffalettas cold.

Mikko: And the great argument in New Orleans, along with how do you make
the best gumbo, and we talked earlier about other sort of food arguments,
it’s the olive salad. Come on, you know what I mean? You pick your
restaurant by the olive salad and not by any other thing.

Anthony: Absolutely.

Lorin: I couldn’t agree more.

Anthony: And olive salad’s just a couple of staples. It’s great olive oil,
great olives, probably three different kinds, a good black Sicilian olive,
a good green Sicilian olive, capers, some roasted peppers that you’re
roasting yourself that you grow out of your backyard, some fresh oregano,
some fresh basil. There’s not a whole bunch you want. You need a little
crunch in, a little celery, a little carrots I like to put in it, and
that’s a basic family recipe for me.

Mikko: But you go to the Napoleon House and you’re going to get a different
olive salad than just down the street from Central, and then there was
Frank’s, and when I first came to New Orleans 30 years ago…

Lorin: And Progress.

Mikko: They’d kind of, in a good natured way, they’d kind of roll their
eyes and say, “Well you’ve got to try ours because their olive salad isn’t
exactly…” This great sort of friendly rivalry.

Lorin: There’s so many really interesting food debates which I think is so
fascinating about the food culture of New Orleans, and you even can take it
into the sweet side of things, because part of that Italian heritage has to
do with cookies. So, we go to [Bricotta's] and we can go to Bricotta’s and
have their fabulous gellati and sorbetti and all the beautiful things that
they make, and their cookies are great. Your mom, your grandma, your aunt,
your sister, your father, everybody makes cookies in your family, right?

Anthony: I have to take off all right. I mean, there’s no questions with
the family. It comes around St.Joseph’s Day, and mom’s calling me saying,
“Anthony, we need to make cookies.” We roll it all out by hand, the dough’s
rolled by hand, the figs are ground in an old-fashioned grinder that was my
grandmother’s, so it’s easily 90 years old. It’s fun to do it, and the neat
thing now is I have daughters that are young, 16 and 10, and they’re
getting into it. My daughter, my 16 year old, is so into the Italian
heritage right now, it’s amazing. And I guess all these TV shows kind of
glamorize it a little bit, you know? But she’s loving it. So the young kids
are getting into it a little bit now, and it’s about keeping that culture
and that heritage going.

Sunpie: That’s beautiful.

Lorin: I think so, too.

Sunpie: Make sure they get it right because I got to eat.

George: I have a question about just how many thing you can grow here in
New Orleans that are staples in Italian cooking, like the foods that were
prepared over there. What grows really well here?

Anthony: Tomatoes, peppers, basil, parsley, oregano grows great. My whole
life, that’s all my father ever grew. Then the gagutza squash. My dad
starting doing fava beans the last year, and we had a really good crop of
them this year. I mean, enough for us to eat. Nothing to go crazy about.
But that’s all the staples that grow well in our climate, in our soils. And
tomatoes is what it’s all about.

Mikko: What about the mushrooms? My grandmother, who was from Calabria,
used to take the mushrooms, right after the rain, right off the side of the
road. Is there a similar sort of thing here with the old Italians, where we
fear whatever mushroom we see, to the old Italian that’s like free bonus
food.

Anthony: Well, I’ll tell you a cute story. I remember growing up as a
little boy going duck hunting with my grandfather, and we were coming out,
perogging out, and he saw wild mushrooms growing. And you know me, I was 19
years old, least bit in my mind that I was going to be doing what I’m doing
right now, but I remember going back to the camp in Shell Beach and eating
these mushrooms, and it was special.

Sunpie: Oh yeah, oyster mushrooms growing on a willow tree.

Anthony: It was chantrelles.

Lorin: They’re chantrelles.

Mikko: They grow in Louisiana.

Anthony: And he never what they were, and that long ago, really, nobody
did. But I still remember eating those mushrooms.

Lorin: And they’re really beautiful too. They look like little golden
flowers, basically, that pop up. We also have the oyster mushrooms, Sunpie,
that you referenced that look very much like oysters. I don’t know if
that’s really so much a part of the Italian larder in terms of cookery
today, but we certainly do eat them, and oysters themselves just are
incorporated as part of what we eat here, so you might even find at some of
these really amazing small Italian restaurants, there’s one on the West
Bank called [Lito], where you can actually get shrimp Parmesan.

Sunpie: I know it, yeah.

Lorin: So, again, bringing the Louisiana seafood and the Italian culture
and all of a sudden, there you have it, a whole new kind of environment of
dishes that sit there before you and are easy to just chow down on, and
it’s beautiful. Anthony, the cookies, for people who aren’t familiar with
the different kinds, and you referenced the figs, that cookie is called a
[cuccidata]?

Anthony: Yes.

Lorin: Is that right?

Anthony: Yes.

Lorin: Okay. So the cuccidata is the fig and orange and all those beautiful
candied fruits?

Anthony: Yup.

Lorin: And then that’s wrapped around a really lovely kind of a, is it a
yeast dough or is it a basic dough?

Anthony: No, it’s more like a sugar dough, like a short bread.

Lorin: Sugar dough. And then sometimes frosted?

Anthony: Mm-hmm. A little icing, a little candy sprinkles, you know what I
mean? It’s really cutsie stuff.

Lorin: And then there are also the ones that look like the fingers or the
bones?

Anthony: Yup.

Lorin: And those are flavored how?

Anthony: Anise.

Lorin: And you can find all these cookies all around New Orleans, but I
usually, if I want to grab a bag of them, I’m going to run to Briccota’s,
right there on [Carrolton], right before [Bienville], and I’m going to run
in and get those. And I think that the Italian foods that are New Orleans
Italian foods live on, and we get to hear that with a guy like Anthony and
his family, and the next generation, his children. Anthony, you’re working
right now at Manning’s. Are you getting to bring some of the Italian vibe
to Manning’s?

Anthony: Oh, we’re working on it every day.

Lorin: Excellent.

Anthony: We’re trying to squirt it in there and it’s starting to work a
little bit for us.

Lorin: Multo bene.

Anthony: Multo bene, right.

Mikko: Just change the “g” to an “o”. Manino’s, Archie Manino, the great
Italian quarterback.

Lorin: I’m sure he’d love that.

Sunpie: That’s right.

Anthony: The Manning’s family and Italian cooking are kind of like
together. I mean, Manning’s is all about family, I mean it’s a family
generated restaurant, and so is Italian food and Italian culture and
Italian love, it’s all about family, togetherness. And that’s what we have
in this restaurant.

Mikko: Amen.

Sunpie: Get together and eat it. I have a question for you, Mikko, since
we’re talking about those types of things. What’s your favorite
contribution that Italians have made to the city of New Orleans?

Mikko: Well, clearly, I think that the greatest contribution the Italians
have made to New Orleans is me.

Anthony: Nice.

Sunpie: Bellissimo.

Mikko: But besides me, actually this question, I kind of thought about it
and I’m going to bring something up that’s a little overlooked, is the
Monteleone. I like it as a symbol, because the Italians as a group, as an
ethnic group, suffered a lot when they came to New Orleans. They were the
low rung on the ladder. You can’t cover that up from history, and they
lived in the French Quarter at a time that the French Quarter was at its
economic ebb. I think that you said something, Chef, very interesting: The
family. New Orleans people are about family, but the Italians are about
family because that’s all they had.

The Monteleone is a family owned hotel, it’s not part of a chain, and it
sits in the middle of the French Quarter like a symbol of the pride of the
Italians that came here, made a life, and we’ve had two Italian mayors, and
we’re talking about Italian food as part of the culture, so for me, the
Monteleone, and it’s also, by the way, a really beautiful place with great
service, and I’m not trying to advertise the place, but I just think that
that’s a rarity in a time that a lot of hotels are chains and we have a lot
of beautiful hotels here. The Monteleone to me is a great symbol of the
success of the Italian folks here in New Orleans.

Anthony: I agree.

George: Just to riff on that, there’s a family run grocery store right
there in the French Quarter, Matassa’s.

Mikko: Of course.

George: And that connects up with the music of New Orleans.

Mikko: Well, Cosmo.

George: Cosimo Matassa.

Sunpie: I just thought that was a great Po-Boy shop

George: Oh yeah, exactly. No. We’re talking about somebody…

Mikko: You and food, you really got to go eat, buddy.

George: Well, we’ve got it right here in front of you.

Sunpie: Well, I work in the Quarter and I’ve been eating my way through it
for years and years, so that’s it. Well, not only the great shops, also,
but Italians have also bred and created some of the greatest musicians in
New Orleans. So, George, what do you think about some of the most
significant stars in New Orleans music that are of Italian heritage?

George: Back to Matassa.

Sunpie: Both today and yesterday.

George: He wasn’t playing an instrument, but he’s responsible for recording
some of the greatest rock and roll ever known in the United States of
America. We’re known for our jazz, people often overlook the fact that we
also invented rock n’ roll, in my opinion, of course.

Sunpie: So is it true he only had one mic in the back of that?

George: Yeah, and you took a solo by getting closer to the microphone and
then you backed up and somebody else, and the drums are usually in the
distance because it’s really hard to move a drum kit forward for a solo,
just makes a lot of noise.

Sunpie: True. Earl Palmer didn’t need to be moved.

George: But we’re talking about a guy who’s responsible for working with
people like [Mac Revinak] when he was a teenager, playing guitar back then.
He worked with Dave Bartholomew, Guitar Slim, Professor Longhair, Little
Richard, Bobby Charles, Art Neville, Aaron Neville, [Irma Thomas], and the
list goes on. I’m telling you, this guy was loading jukeboxes with his
father, they had a business, and he got turned on to the music business and
then he opened a little shop, a recording studio, in the back of his family
run business, back in 1945. Right now it’s a laundry mat, Hula Mae’s, but
back in those days, we’re talking about amazing rock and roll. Players from
around the country would come and play here because they knew they’d have a
solid backing band, so there’s a big story there just for Italian heritage.

Sunpie: They wanted the Cosmo sound.

George: The Cosmo sound. And if you want to talk about somebody more
present, who’s doing work and actually continues to go across the seas to
Venice is [Tony Green], who’s a painter as well as a musician.

Lorin: Amazing.

Sunpie: Oh, yeah.

George: The Gypsy Jazz player.

Mikko: Renaissance Man.

George: Quite a Renaissance Man. He splits his time. He goes there in the
summer. I really feel sorry for the guy, you know? He comes back to New
Orleans during the winter and spring and then heads off to Venice. He plays
this beautiful music. He uses New Orleans and Venice as backdrops for his
painting.

Sunpie: Yeah, I’ve run into him in the Plaza del San Marcos.

George: Yeah, rough life for both of you guys, I’m sorry.

Lorin: Yeah, there’s no kidding.

George: And then there’s Louis Prima, of course, who most Americans know
about.

Sunpie: Well, all over the world.

George: Absolutely.

Lorin: Sam Butera and the Wildest.

George: Yeah, well, all those guys, but I would, if I had to name one
person, in terms of contribution, it would be the engineer and all-around
great guy Cosimo Matassa. Rock and roll would not be what it is today
without that Italian-America.

Lorin: George, you know when I got here in the late-70s, one of the first
things I learned was about Cosimo Matassa, and not just through the martini
glass, but actually, learning about that music I was working for a company
that helped put together Jeff [Hanisch's] book, and so I was reading as I
was laying out the type for that, and I got to learn a lot about that, and
I was just blown away because, as usual, there’s always more to what’s
going on in New Orleans than meets the eye, and you just have to dig a
little bit deep, but not too deep, because then you hit water. But you can
always hit something interesting. It’s just amazing here.

Mikko: And Cosmo worked Jazz Fest way deep into his illustrious life. He
was there, and his special on stage won for the longest time. So that was a
great sort of epilogue to a great career in music, so I have to second your
choice for a great Italian influence.

George: And he just entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It takes a
while sometimes. Irma Thomas, it was 50 years, but we do it here in New
Orleans because we enjoy doing it. We’re not waiting for any sort of
accolades or awards, and that’s why people should come to New Orleans with
an open heart and open ears and an appetite.

Lorin: Nice. For music and food.

Sunpie: They go together.

George: And then you’re going to discover so much more. It’s endless. And
the city really is looking for people who are open to an experience. You
can’t come here with any preconceived notions, or you’re going to miss out
on the real magic of this place.

Lorin: Beautiful.

Sunpie: And it’s all around. Well, thanks for everyone being here today,
especially Chef Anthony Spizale from Manning’s restaurant. Lorin, Mikko and
George, it’s been a wonderful session here, and I can’t wait to dive into
that food, and we’ll see y’all next time.

GoNOLA radio is a production of New Orleans Tourism and Marketing
Corporation in conjunction with FSC Interactive. Music by Cale Pellick. My
name is Sunpie. Tune in next week by subscribing to GoNOLA radio on iTunes
or GoNOLA.com.

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