Many of us want to cook like momma. I was always eager for someone else’s momma to be in the kitchen. Mine could barely cook; she was much better at opening cans and boxes. It could be that I’m prejudiced. I’m certain of it, so I honestly appreciate a great meal.
At lunch one afternoon, Jimmy Moran, one of Jimmy Brocato Moran’s four sons, was almost giddy when he confided that his mother was in the kitchen. Mary Latino Brocato (the restaurant Brocatos were distant relations via Cefalu, Italy, to the ice cream Brocato family) wasn’t cooking for the restaurant — Moran’s La Louisiane on Iberville — although the entire family would pitch in from time to time, but this day she was cooking specifically for Jimmy. “She picked these crabs herself,” he explained to everyone at the table.
Mrs. Brocato had coaxed béchamel sauce (only a coincidence that it is one of the five classic “mother” sauces) into an embrace with jumbo lumps of crabmeat, then crowned the dish with buttered and toasted breadcrumbs. Ethereal. For me, another food benchmark. Still is, and a lesson in the rewards of patience, carefully picking out itty-bitty pieces of shell, leaving the crabmeat lumps intact, and cooking the béchamel sauce long on low.
Jimmy’s mother taught her sons to cook. Her late husband had changed his name from Brocato to Moran, hiding a misspent youth from his mother, Jimmy’s grandmother. A brief boxing career and a flirtation with slot machine distribution led to a gamble on Moran’s La Louisiane. The flamboyant restaurateur’s instinct for publicity was brilliant. He wore multitudes of diamonds, earning his flashy moniker — Diamond Jim — and an occasional sparkler tucked into a lofty meatball played to the press. His sons Jimmy and Tony Moran built on the restaurant legacy, adding Acme Oyster House, the Old Absinthe House Bar, and Moran’s Riverside that became Bella Luna along with Jimmy Moran Catering.
Jimmy spent a six-month apprenticeship at Alfredo’s in Rome, where the original pasta Alfredo was created, helping to define his legendary fettuccine recipe. It ultimately surpassed the fame of his father’s diamond-studded meatballs. The taste memory goes back to the 1970s when Jimmy would toss fettuccine at tables throughout Moran’s La Louisiane. There was no real secret to it, except the simple ingredients that combine in a light, silky comeback plate of pasta: paper thin fettuccine cooked al dente, butter, half and half (not cream), pasta water and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
He built Moran’s Riverside, a second restaurant in a new building at the French Market in 1975, and ran both places for a while, but the new restaurant soon overtook the popularity of La Louisiane, so that was sold. A Toresani, an imported Italian pasta machine, was installed on the first floor at Moran’s Riverside. There he put two of his children to work, Jimmy Lee Moran and Ann Moran Brainard. Jimmy worked as the restaurant’s day manager and had also worked at Acme Oyster House. Ann worked in the pasta shop after she graduated from Tulane University. If you couldn’t afford to enjoy the fettuccine at the restaurant often, it was inexpensive enough to pick up a pound of fresh fettuccine. Copies of the recipe were always handed out. He felt that sharing the best was important.
Jimmy works with Freeport McMoRan. His small Toresani at home continues to crank out the same thin fettuccine. And yes, the old recipe works — really, really works.
Ann treasured kitchen time with her father. “Once or twice a week we would cook together. What I cook today is an evolution of what Dad taught me. Everything I do stems from that,” she says. She has a trove of family recipes and shares them with an open hand, except for her grandfather’s meatball recipe. “I was raised with the warning to never divulge it. That’s the only one.”
“Even though I live in New England, I brought my culture and my city with me. I’m black and gold through and through and think of myself as an ambassador for New Orleans. I constantly make gumbo, jambalaya — and an annual crawfish boil here for friends — our favorite New Orleans recipes”
Jimmy won’t give up the meatball recipe either, but he did offer a snappy family tomato sauce recipe. There’s a lot of conflict around here about calling it sauce vs. gravy but it’s simply a personal preference and who’s your mama.