Italian restaurants came to New Orleans in the late 1800s. A tidal wave of Italian immigrants — most of them Sicilians — quickly filled the French Market and the French Quarter itself. The French and Spanish Creole citizens of New Orleans took a shine to Italian food. From that day to this, Italian restaurants have been among the city’s most popular.
Many legendary Italian trattorias came and went, still remembered by their customers even after they’d been closed for decades. Here are a few of the most beloved such places.
CBD: 914 Poydras, 1917-1974
Turci’s history would make a good book. Ettore Turci and his wife Teresa (from Bologna and Naples, respectively) were both opera singers who came to America to perform in 1909. New Orleans was one of the great opera cities of the world, and it wasn’t long before the Turcis moved here. In 1917 they opened a restaurant at 229 Bourbon Street. First it was very popular, then a center of the Italian community, especially on Sunday evenings.
The Turcis retired in 1943, but the next generation of the family reopened on Poydras Street at the end of World War II. It became even more popular than it was on Bourbon Street, particularly among families. Always a lot of bambinos at Turci’s.
Turci’s never was a fancy restaurant. By today’s standards, the cooking was very basic, yet at the same time distinctive. The definitive example was spaghetti á la Turci. It seemed simple, but its making was complex. The sauce was studded with chopped meat, mushrooms, chicken and other robust ingredients. To this day, there has not been another dish like it. The recipe for spaghetti á la Turci is known, but not many people go to the considerable trouble of making it.
Most of Turci’s dishes went extinct after the restaurant closed in 1974. Among them was a thrilling ravioli — a handmade, veal-stuffed, mushroom-and-butter-sauced wonder.
Turci’s reopened on Magazine Street in 1976. It wasn’t the same as the old place, and it didn’t last long. But Turci’s in its heyday is still well remembered.
Broadmoor: 4200 South Claiborne Avenue, 1895-1981
Of all the extinct restaurants of every kind that once were a part of New Orleans, T. Pittari’s is far and away the best remembered. Everything about it was sui generis. It began at the front door, with its revolving neon signs, mosaics of lobsters embracing the doors and line of taxis in front. (Tom Pittari, the second-generation owner, paid the cabbies for every carload of tourists they brought to the restaurant.)
The menu was utterly unique. To this day, no restaurant kitchen cooks in ways even close to Pittari’s. The place was best known for live Maine lobsters. In the 1950s and before, no other restaurant sold Maine lobster. Tom Pittari made a specialty of the crustacean, creating the chilled aquariums that kept the lobsters alive until they were drafted to become somebody’s dinner.
The other big-time nonconformity of Pittari’s cookery was wild game. I have old menus that show lion, hippopotamus and bear (oh, my!) among the entrées. When laws were passed prohibiting commerce in endangered species, Pittari’s wild game selection was tamed down to buffalo, venison and antelope–all farm-raised.
The irony of T. Pittari’s was that its straight-ahead Italian and Creole cooking was the best food in the place. It was the first restaurant to imitate Pascal’s Manale’s barbecue shrimp. Dishes like lasagna and veal parmigiana were as good as any other in town. The inexpensive daily specials brought excellent New Orleans-style eats, with especially fine soups.
A series of deep flooding events in the 1970s and 1980s forced Pittari’s to completely renovate the restaurant. The third time this happened, the restaurant moved to Mandeville. It was a quick bust there, where the mostly-rural population failed to get excited by Pittari’s games. But I still get many calls and e-mails from people wanting to jog their memories of Pittari’s.
Toney’s Spaghetti House
French Quarter: 212 Bourbon (across from Galatoire’s), 1936-1992
The heyday of Toney’s (that is how they spelled the name) began right after World War II. New Orleans was becoming one of the most-visited cities in the world. Toney’s was different from the other family-owned Italian restaurants around town in being pitched for people hanging out on Bourbon Street. It kept very late hours, for one thing. The menu was easy. You were there for spaghetti with red sauce and meatballs (or Italian sausage, or beef daube). Or if you were hip to it, a pizza. In the 1940s, pizza was a new dish everywhere except New York and Naples. The menu offered many other dishes, but they weren’t emphasized. You want lasagna? Come back on Wednesday, the only day they made it.
No restaurant in New Orleans now is comparable to Toney’s. Most of its customers were still local people, out for an evening in the many restaurants and jazz clubs along the strip. The prices at Toney’s, despite the great location and the lusty food, were so low that they seemed to be a mistake.
Anthony Bonomolo founded Toney’s during the Depression, in a tiny space where most diners ate at a counter. Anthony’s son Joe took over and tripled Toney’s square footage after the war. He installed neon signs, bright light and walls covered with photos of notables (and no small number of unknowns) who came to Bourbon Street.
Toney’s menu kept growing to include Creole-Italian dishes: stuffed eggplant, oysters with spaghetti, fried seafood and daily specials of the likes of red beans and rice. The place opened at six in the morning with an excellent breakfast. The homemade biscuits were especially good, and much appreciated by people who had been out (or working) all night.
Jay Bonomolo, grandson of the founder, took over in the 1980s. Bourbon Street had gone over to tourism. Far fewer locals came in. In 1990, Jay decided to move Toney’s to Metairie, saying that he was tired of full days when he didn’t recognize a single customer. The relocated restaurant didn’t take off. Still, Toney’s occasionally gets good ratings in diners’ polls, even though it’s long gone.
Metairie: 4427 Shores Drive, 1972-2005
Until Chef Goffredo Fraccaro walked down the gangplank and off the ship where he’d worked for a number of years, eating Italian in New Orleans meant the Sicilian specialties cooked by every mamma in town. But in Italy itself, chefs are as ambitious as their French counterparts, and the regional styles add fascinating textures.
Goffredo thought that New Orleans was ready for that kind of Italian cooking. In 1969, to make that point, he opened a restaurant called Il Ristorante Tre Fontane on Exchange Alley. It didn’t fly, but Goffredo stuck with his idea and tried again in 1972 in a Metairie neighborhood that still had a lot of empty lots.
But good food conquers all barriers, and La Riviera caught on. The gourmet community — who knew a superlative chef when they ran into one — was a big help, holding wine dinners and touting the cuisine in general.
La Riviera’s menu was interesting in that it was split up into the specialties of four Italian provinces, in four-course dinners that gave one a taste for a new (to us) kind of Italian food.
In the spaces in between, Goffredo ran all the familiar local Italian dishes. His meatballs were better than any other, then or now. The fried calamari, served in an enormous pile, had no equal. Seafood prepared in straightforward ways and total freshness. Everything was good or better.
Then lightning struck. Goffredo won a crabmeat cooking competition in San Francisco with his new crabmeat ravioli. It was a revolutionary dish and became the signature of La Riviera. Then everybody else in town started serving it. But not this well.
Metairie people loved not just Goffredo’s food, but the man himself. He didn’t come out into the dining room a lot, but he gave a warm hug to any customer who infiltrated the kitchen. Then he’d hand you something to pop into your mouth, right out of a bubbling pan on the stove.
The dining room in its early days had tables separated from one another by rows of aquariums filled with fish. In the 1980s, Goffredo built a bigger, much more handsome restaurant across the street.
Goffredo sold La Riviera to his nephew Valentino Rovere in 1991. But he kept on working every day until Katrina flooded the neighborhood. Plans to reopen were made, but they never came to anything. Goffredo, now in his eighties, still shows up every year to cook for the Chef’s Charity for Children, which he co-founded. And his crabmeat ravioli lives on all over town.