I had not been back to the Big Easy since April in the year of Katrina, and it was time for another visit. Our time share condo at the lovely Hotel De L’ Eau Vive survived and Tchoupitoulas (Chop-a-too-lus) Street proved to be as funky and seductive as ever. If you head past the legendary Mother’s on Poydras and walk toward the Warehouse District, you’ll spot some of the pre-storm pioneers still doing brisk business: Emeril’s, Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar, and an Aussie saloon.
Things can get lubricated on Tchoupitoulas yet it was a pleasant surprise to spot a brazen WINO on the street. The Wine Institute New Orleans (W.I.N.O.) opened in 2007 and has been doing its best to enlighten wine drinkers with a tasting room, a retail store and an impressive line-up of seminars and fun programs at their school.
I stopped by to check out the Italian wine selection. The Italian wine map above the racks was impressive but more comprehensive than the modest collection of Piedmont reds, a couple of super-Tuscans and a smattering of some predictable regional mainstays.
Amanda Toups, the manager and a co-buyer for the store, was enthroned behind the counter at the cash register and she explained some of the wine trends she’s been observing.
“It seems that New Orleans is still a French-drinking town, but people are willing to experiment a little more. We sell a lot of French wine, but Californian product is sure catching up. Maybe it’s because we have an identifiable cuisine in New Orleans, and perhaps people here need a little more of a push to open up their thinking about other wines.”
The cuisine pull-through aspect of pairing wine with food is kind of mysterious in New Orleans. I had visited the new Southern Food and Beverage Museum earlier in the week and mentioned it to Amanda.
“The exhibit said that in 1910 about 40 percent of the population of New Orleans was Italian — mostly Sicilians. And an amazing 80 percent of people living in the French Quarter were Italian. I guess I was hoping to see a little better representation of Sicilian wines, such as sun-drenched Nero d’Avola, on the racks. You’d think that with that history, there might be more Italian eating and wine drinking going on in town,” I said.
“That’s a good point,” said Amanda, who added that her husband is the executive chef at long-time dining establishment Delmonico — an Italian steak house on St. Charles acquired by Emeril in 1998 — and that one of the staffers there has spent time in Italy and learning traditional sausage-making. “We don’t have a lot of great Italian restaurants in town. But that will improve because John Besh is opening a new Italian restaurant called Domenica.”
When I reported to Sharon on my visit to WINO, she respectfully disagreed with Amanda’s observations. “It sounds like Amanda’s never experienced a “Feed Me” feast at Tony Angelo’s place in Lakeview. When I visited NOLA last year for a food conference, Sandra Scalise Juneau, a talented Sicilian-Louisianan culinary professional and her husband took me to dinner at Tony Angelo’s rebuilt restaurant just blocks fromwhere the 17 Street Canal levee gave way. It was like dining with an Italian family. Tony himself –- I think he must be in his 80s — chose our courses that night and the seafood selections were a delectable tribute to his Sicilian heritage.”
Sharon added that she got the impression from Sandra that cucina siciliana was enjoyed in private homes and neighborhood restaurants rather than in the main tourist areas.
I should have known better than to get Sharon started because it was clear she wasn’t going to stop.
“And remember back in the ‘80s when we drove all the way out to Mosca’s after Mimi Sheraton named it the best Italian restaurant in New Orleans? I can still taste those pan-fried oysters!” Sharon said, her voice rising with her indignation. “And Angelo Brocato’s gelato is an institution in NOLA.”
“Did you know that the agricultural community of Independence, Louisiana, known for its scrumptious tomatoes and strawberries, was settled by Sicilians?”
Sharon’s voice was getting more faint as I descended the stairs to retrieve some Nero d’Avola . . . it seems I am about to drink my words.
What experiences have you had with Italian wine, restaurants, or cooking in Louisiana? Write and share your stories with us.