Chef Andrea Apuzzo is a man difficult to forget, even if you meet him only once.
I first encountered him in 1977, when I was working on an article about dining in Atlanta. I knew nothing about Atlanta’s dining scene, so I spent several weeks dining around there, with an eye to the chic and trendy.
The day before I returned to New Orleans, I had Sunday brunch at Atlanta’s Omni Hotel. I asked to speak with the chef. Out to the table came a low-slung man wearing a very tall toque, a bright white chef’s jacket and an eager smile. He showed me his main lookout, a beautiful dining room called Bugatti (for the hot Italian car). Bugatti served gourmet Northern Italian food, a cuisine rarely seen in America in those days.
I wrote my article, returned to New Orleans, and forgot the little, smiling talkative chef. Nine years went by. I was having lunch at a newish restaurant in Metairie called Andrea’s. Andrea sat down as lunch came to an end, and he told me all about himself, starting with his origins in Anacapri, at the top of the magnificently scenic island off the coast of Naples, Italy.
Classically trained, Andrea had worked in many restaurants around the world: Germany, Spain, France, England, Bermuda and the United States. He is fluent in all the languages involved, and able to knock out a classical dish from any of those cuisines — to say nothing about all the regional cooking styles from his homeland.
While he told me all this during that lunch at Andrea’s, I had the intuition that we had met before. “Bugatti!” I suddenly said. His eyes perked up.
“That’s the name of a restaurant I created in Atlanta,” he said. “Beautiful hotel!” He said he remembered me, but I’m not sure I made that great an impression.
Andrea was no stranger to New Orleans by the time he opened his restaurant here. He was executive chef at the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, one of New Orleans’s most highly regarded hostelries and a local hangout. He held that position for eight years before he and two cousins partnered to open Andrea’s in Metairie.
That trio of restaurateurs created the best Italian restaurant in New Orleans dining history. What set Andrea’s apart was in cooking and serving great dishes from most of Italy’s regional cuisines. New Orleans in those days (and still, really, today) was dominated by the cooking of Sicily. Nothing wrong with Sicilian cooking, but there is much more to Italian cooking than just that region’s take on it.
Andrea’s partnering cousins — Roberto and Cosantino De Angelis — were as responsible as the chef was for the brilliant dining the restaurant offered in its early years. And they had their share of barriers. It was widely believed then that a restaurant in the suburbs (Andrea’s is in Metairie) must be much cheaper than one in downtown or uptown New Orleans — regardless of the excellence of the food and service. And there was the preference for familiar Sicilian food over the Tuscan, Piemontese and Bolognese dishes that Andrea’s turned out so well.
These deterrents accomplished two things. First, New Orleans diners learned to love a broad range of Italian dishes that most of us had not even heard of before. While most people continued to go for the likes of lasagna, veal parmigiana and fettuccine Alfredo, every now and then — often because of Chef Andrea’s persuasive speeches at the table — they would try something really new. Vitello tonnato, bollito misto, fish with basilico sauce, and tiramisu started grabbing people’s curiosity. Chef Andrea retooled the antipasto course with a tremendous offering of marinated seafood and vegetables, cured and smoked Italian salumi and many Italian cheeses.
Meanwhile, the seafood department worked at a high level. Chef Andrea brought in many more species of fish and shellfish than almost any other restaurant. Most of the fish came in whole. The filleting took place on site. The same was true of the meats. Andrea’s has its own butcher shop and cut nearly everything from whole loins of beef, veal, lamb, pork and even exotic meats like goat. The freshness advantage all this brought to the table was (and still is) a hallmark of Andrea’s.
Then came a lucky break for both Andrea and myself. One day over lunch, I asked if he had thought about writing a cookbook. He had indeed but didn’t know where to turn to make that happen. I had written recipes for years and I wasn’t married yet, so I volunteered.
The way we proceeded with the cookbook proved not only to be very effective, but the best education in cooking I ever had. I propped my laptop on the stove top and watched Andrea cook each dish, step by step, while I wrote it all down. We measured, timed, and took the temperature of everything. If Andrea did something I didn’t understand, he would stop and explain the step. When he was about to grab a handful of something to throw into the pot, I stopped him so we could measure the quantity exactly.
Two hundred dishes later, I had written all the recipes and was going about the endless task of cross-checking the ingredient lists with the instructions. Meanwhile, photographer Glade Bilby and his team came in to shoot the beautiful illustrations of the food. By the time we were finished, I was betrothed.
Almost three decades have gone by, and I still think that La Cucina Di Andrea’s is one of the two most useful cookbooks in my kitchen. I refer to it constantly. I also keep a copy at the radio station, to answer questions asked by my listeners.
It’s over thirty years that Andrea’s has been open. Over the years Chef Andrea has adopted a policy of cooking anything a customer asks for if he has the ingredients on hand. This has made the place less Italian and more New Orleans every day. But that’s what the customers want, and that’s what Chef Andrea offers to give.