I was recently asked about Italian food in New Orleans: “When did Italians come here? What’s the story with the muffuletta sandwich? Why is the red sauce here so sweet? And where can I find 'traditional' red sauce?” By traditional, I understand that to mean sauce that's not sweet in the style of Italians from the northeast U.S. Time for a piccolo (little) primer on New Orleans Italian cuisine and St. Joseph’s Day, an Italian/Creole tradition that takes place each March.
A great number of Sicilians settled here during the 1800s, and by 1850 were believed to be the largest immigrant population, outnumbering the French and Germans. Many worked on the docks, sold produce at the French Market or opened corner-store markets and cafés citywide. In the early 1900s came businesses like Taormina’s, a family-operated pasta factory/grocery/restaurant in the building that is now Muriel's, Central Grocery, Marcello's, Terranova's Supermarket and many, many more.
The layered meats, cheeses and olive-salad muffuletta, born in New Orleans, has multiple origin stories and styles (round-seeded Italian bread or French loaf). The most logical explanation for the genesis of the muffuletta suggests Italian workers on break from the docks cobbled together bits of this (meats and cheeses) and that (olive salad and bread) to form a meal, of sorts. As for style, the ongoing debate is whether to eat a muffuletta hot or cold. Decide for yourself at Central Grocery (cold), Napoleon House (warm), Stein's (cold) and Cochcon Butcher (warm).
New Orleans’ red sauce—commonly called “red gravy”—is indeed sweet. The presumption is that as Sicilian people merged into New Orleans culture and society, so too did their food, and that meant starting dished with the food "holy trinity"—bell peppers, onions and celery—which adds sweetness and flavor. There are a large number of restaurants where sweet sauce is signature. To taste, check out the spinach-stuffed cannelloni at Vincent's or Mandina's Italian sausage and spaghetti. And when a yen for a brighter, more tart red sauce, there’s Italian Barrel for family-recipe lasagna, the handmade pasta and meatballs at Red Gravy or the “Ricotta Gnocchi Bolognese” at Altamura.
St. Joseph’s Day, an Italian and Creole Catholic food-centric tradition honoring the patron saint of famine, is celebrated March 19 with private and public altars adorned with pastas, vegetable casseroles, cakes and baked goods offered in exchange for monetary donation. Retail and travel-friendly, 100-plus year-old Angelo Brocato's has fresh-baked and packaged St. Joseph’s cookies.
New Orleans Italian cuisine is a unique feast all its own. Mangia, mangia. Nothing could be sweeter.