by Tom Fitzmorris
THE CULINARY CALENDAR RIGHT now shows two dramatically different kinds of cooking. The carnival season’s very name calls for having our last steaks and chops before Lent begins. In Lent itself, it’s all about seafood. We dedicated Orleanians all know and participate in the shift.
But there’s another shift in local kitchens. Before, after and between the beef and the fish is a wide range of edibles from the Italian cooks and eaters. One doesn’t get in trouble with the eating laws if one eats lots of Italian and–even more specific–Sicilian food. Indeed, it’s not a big challenge to create otherwise general Italian dishes in vegetarian forms. Even the celebrations of the season are certified Italian.
I was thinking about that during a recent dinner at Fausto’s. Every time I turn up there, I mull over what an interesting blend of different, regional takes on Italian cooking it embodies. And it goes further still in its use of the dominant Sicilian dishes.
This night, it began with a big bowl of mussels. You’ve got to get your mussels while they’re around, which they are right now. Most servings of mussels are in a highly liquid sauce made of white wine, herbs, olive oil and the mussels in their shells. But the southern Italian version serves the bivalves in marinara red sauce. Mussel lovers–including me–have a disdain for that concoction. But it took only seconds for me to lock in on this tomato-based version of mussels. The only way an eater could not like Fausto’s version of the dish is if he didn’t like mussels.
On my long trip home, I mentally built a number of lists that highlight the differences of the many Sicilian-Creole served in our restaurants. Here it goes.
Comparison Number One. If Tony Angello’s were still around and served mussels, they wouldn’t be as good as Fausto’s, because of the saucy marinara’s contribution. Tony’s food was much admired because there were many straight New Orleans flavors on his menu. Things like gumbo and oysters Bienville, along with eggplant Tina (like lasagna) the eggplant replacing pasta.
Comparison Number Two: Impastato’s has everybody beat in the serving of basic pasta. Its best shot is fettuccine Alfredo, the noodles for which are made in house with a thinness that results in a fantastic flavor release.
Comparison Number Three: Fausto’s is in a close tie with Vincent’s in the making of cannelloni. But then Vincent’s is a decidedly Sicilian-New Orleans Italian place, with dishes like crawfish bisque and blackened tuna. Which is my whole point. Meanwhile, Impastato’s, Impastato Cellars and Sal & Judy’s, all them are Sicilian-born, and consistently among the best Italian eats in the entire area.
Comparison Number Four: Really deep roots in Sicily almost always give birth to great restaurants, especially when modern ingredients and cooking techniques show up. The most intriguing is Avo, a two-year-old trattoria whose owners go way back in New Orleans. Their culinary work shows this off. Also good in a lot of the same ways is Nuvolari’s, which during most of its history was more about New Orleans food than Italian. That has changed recently, and results in the best cooking ever in Mandeville. Much more informal is the The Northern Provinces Of Italy and St. Tammany. As I write this, I can’t help but think of the cooking of Northern and Northeastern Italy. The cooking there is so different from our familiar Sicilian-inspired Italian flavor palette that many visitors from here to Genoa, Milan, Florence, and Verona say that they didn’t like it. Realy, it’s just unfamiliar. Try it with an open heart.
Northern Italy Comparison Number One: The most obvious difference between, say Roma and Genoa, is that olive oil and tomatoes rule in the south, while cream and herbs–best known as pesto–are definitive in the north. Another difference is that in the north, instead of having pasta as the main starch in a meal, rice takes over. Italian rice–it’s grown where you eat it–is unlike anything you see in the south much.
Northern Italian Comparison Number Two: The best-known northern Italian cooking is that they do in Tuscany, midway between Rome and Florence. There we find terrific steaks and other roasted meats, with robust flavors from the woods. The finest exemplar of Tuscan cooking can be found in the New Orleans are at Del Porto in Covington, which I have been saying for a long time is the best Italian restaurant in all of the North Shore.
That said, it’s the red-sauce dishes of southern Italy that dominate the eating scene. I’m thinking now about Meribo, on Lee Lane in Covington. It has wood-fired pizza, whole fish, and a unique style of southern Italian cookery. To sum up this advisory, I tell you that the best eating to be found in our many Italian restaurants may be Sicilian, and perhaps one you haven’t tried yet.
Andrea’s. Metairie: 3100 19th St. 504-834-8583.
Avo. Uptown: 5908 Magazine. 504-509-6550.
Del Porto. Covington: 501 E Boston St. 985-875-1006.
Fausto’s. Metairie: 530 Veterans Blvd. 504-833-7121.
Impastato’s. Metairie: 3400 16th St. 504-455-1545.
Irene’s Cuisine. French Quarter: 539 St Philip. 504-529-8811.
Meribo. Covington: 326 N. Lee Lane. 985-302-5533.
Mosca’s. Westwego: 4137 US 90. 504-436-9942.
Nuvolari’s. Mandeville: 246 Girod St. 985-626-5619.
Pascal’s Manale. Uptown: 1838 Napoleon Ave. 504-895-4877.
Rizzuto’s. Lakeview: 6262 Fleur de Lis Dr. 504-300-1804.
Sal and Judy’s. Lacombe: 27491 US 190. 985-882-9443.
Vincent’s. Riverbend: 7839 St Charles Ave. 504-866-9313.
Vincent’s. Metairie: 4411 Chastant St. 504-885-2984.