Loyola University associate professor of history and director of Loyola's Center for the Study of New Orleans Justin Nystrom writes about Italian contributions to New Orleans restaurants in his forthcoming book Creole Italian: Sicilian Immigrants and the Shaping of New Orleans Food Culture, which will be released Aug. 1. On March 29, Nystrom leads a talk called "The Spaghetti District: How New Orleans put Italian Food on the Map" as part of the university's Cultural Conversations series. Nystrom spoke with Gambit about New Orleans' culinary history.
What created pasta manufacturing and the so-called "spaghetti restaurant" in New Orleans?
Nystrom: At the turn of the 20th century, the French Quarter is heavily Italian, and really heavily Sicilian. The emergence of the manufacturing of pasta exploded in the 1890s in the Quarter, and what we think of as the Italian restaurant appears in the first decade of the 20th century along Decatur Street. There are Italians that have had restaurants (before that), but they're really seafood restaurants and oyster houses. They serve pompano and gumbo. So really, it's the start of the 20th century that (new) audiences — diners outside of Italian audiences — start eating at these restaurants. It's become the hot new ethnic cuisine.
This is when Frank Manale opens what we know today as Pacal's Manale. It's a hot new ethnic food and people are discovering pasta in a big way. Pasta was an imported product for a long time, but we started to get a critical mass of Sicilians here in New Orleans by 1890. At the same time, the federal government passed a pretty severe tariff on imports, and so you have this opportunity to actually make pasta in New Orleans. Pasta is being sold primarily to people of Italian descent. By the time you're getting to the 1900s, there are so many Italians here, there's a pretty good market for it.
How did the spaghetti restaurant emerge?
N: There's a relationship between spaghetti restaurants and the emergence of the first nightclubs in New Orleans. You have the emergence of the spaghetti restaurants right around the time when Prohibition occurs and right when jazz becomes really hot. So people are listening to jazz and white mid-dle-class audiences are starting to buy jazz albums, right around the 1920s. You see the spaghetti houses move from Decatur Street to Bourbon Street. Decatur Street is a working-class, kind of blue-collar zone at that time. And when (the restaurants) move to Bourbon Street, they get white tablecloths, they get waiters, they get jazz bands and they violate Prohibition laws. There is this synergy on Bourbon Street between the Italian restaurants, where they serve spaghetti and meatballs, but they're also serving Creole dishes, and they all had jazz. The start of the golden age of Bourbon Street comes out of these spaghetti restaurants.
What defines Creole-Italian food today?
N: When we want to market something as New Orleans, we start calling it Creole. I asked lots of people when I was doing oral histories for this book, what does Creole-Italian mean to them? And (I) got a lot of different answers, but there is something syncretic about New Orleans Italian food. You can't go to Mosca's and get oysters Mosca or chicken a la grande and not realize that. What's important to me about Creole-Italian is locality, and it's really about seafood. Pascal's Manale's barbecue shrimp is quintessentially a New Orleans thing. It's really not Italian, although it's almost kind of Sicilian, but it's very New Orleans. The idea of serving seafood with pasta is something that emerges here in the 1920s and 1930s. Then there are (dishes) like speckled trout or pompano with Italian touches, like olive salad or capers. Joe Segreto's menu at Eleven 79 was very reflective of this sort of thing, where he blended Sicilian influences with New Orleans. I think it's also the juxtaposition of spaghetti and meatballs on a menu with shrimp Creole. They sit shoulder to shoulder.