Mosca's is just the sort of family-run restaurant New Orleanians tend to love: it's creaky, set in its ways, and no picnic to find. It has employed three generations without ever bothering to produce a cookbook. Because time scarcely touches it, everything has already been said, chewed over, savored, digested and said again -- one could recite the fairy tale of oysters Mosca without ever having driven over the river and through the woods to Avondale.
It's possible that there's been too much talk. For a well-lit, two-room restaurant that's hardly changed a wink in 57 years, Mosca's has spawned more myths than Middle-Earth. Begin with the chicken a la Grande, widely purported to be the most luscious chicken dish on either side of the Mississippi. An entire chicken, pan-fried almost black and lambasted with glorious amounts of olive oil, rosemary and garlic cloves, it does indeed belong to that rare class of dishes that justifies chicken as a medium for fine cuisine. Its mythology, however, overshadows the other chicken dish, which deserves equal adulation: the silent genius, chicken cacciatore. Like the legendary a la Grande, the cacciatore is a whole chicken, its fried ruins prearranged on a dented metal platter as if by divine ordination. The difference is in the cacciatore's sauce: an oily, adhesive red sauce, blessed with sweet smokiness and garlic, that causes the dark chicken to look like a New Mexican landscape under moonlight.
Erroneous accounts of Mosca's lineage, Sicilian heritage and Mafioso connections run rampant through the world's guidebooks and boudoirs. For the record, the late Provino and Lisa Mosca, who once ran a restaurant by the same name in Chicago, opened Mosca's in 1946. The spiritual source of Provino's never-changing recipes lies with his ancestors in the Central Italian coastal town of San Benedetto del Tronto.
The restaurant has passed to their son, Johnny, a welcoming man of heavy-lidded countenance who slides an insect-shaped ashtray around the bar, explaining that Mosca (contrary to popular usage, it's pronounced with a long "o," as in "mo garlic") means "fly" in Italian. He caters especially to an awkwardly placed, two-person table set apart in the barroom, where glamorously dressed people drinking two cocktails at a time like to sit. It seems likely that the atmosphere surrounding this table -- as well as the stretch limos in the dark, gravel parking lot -- fuel popular stories about the Moscas and their good old friend, Al Capone. Fact or fiction?
"I can't give you the correct data on that," says Mary Jo Mosca, Johnny's wife, after a pause. "It keeps the mystique alive."
Mary Jo was forthright about every other historical detail. People will tell you that it takes forfeiting a first-born son to get a table at Mosca's, or at the very least an hourlong wait, which is no longer necessarily the case. The family has entertained reservations on every night but Saturday since the 1960s. This "new" policy is one of few innovations the restaurant and its regulars have ever endured. The Moscas still accept only cash, the jukebox still plays Louis Prima and Pete Fountain, and everything still arrives at the table family-style: stacks of plates, piles of silverware, carafes of water, deliveries of hot, twisted sesame rolls, heaping entree platters and the tin drip pots of espresso that serve exactly six.
Six is the magic number. Four can't sample enough of the menu, and eight is too many to share the iceberg, crabmeat and olive salad, one of just three appetizers. Try your muscle with a nutcracker eating another starter on a similar theme: hard-shell crabs marinating in fiery olive salad so that vinegar and oil lubricate every joint.
Six friends prepared to eat generally reach their limit after five colossal entrees and three easy bottles of Ricasoli Chianti drunk from squat juice glasses. Besides the chicken dishes, there's pepper-spiked sausage served with soft, roasted potatoes, every cell of which balloons with oil, and shell-on Italian shrimp that remain snappish despite the deluge of olive oil, dried herbs and garlic that engulfs them. One of Mosca's two pasta dishes involves threadlike spaghetti, smooth red sauce and big, garlic-packed meatballs; the other is a colorless pasta bordelaise, bathed in butter and olive oil, and lovingly punished with garlic.
The delirium caused by excessive garlic, pepper and oil may inhibit your ability to think about dessert. Don't think, then -- just order one each of the Pineapple Fluff (essentially pineapple and whipped cream) and the tart, housemade cheesecake. The best reward for such fortitude is when Johnny Mosca noses around the table and pronounces, "Good job, kids. You really know how to eat."
Of all the Mosca's stories, it's the one about baked oysters Mosca that I regret remains folkloric to me. The oysters themselves tasted musty and went unfinished the only time I ordered it.
There's no argument, however, that a roadside supperclub in Avondale produces some of the most gratifying meals ever served. How has Mosca's managed not to become spoiled by discovery, to uphold its mystique despite all the talk? The Mosca family never seems to have aspired to fame, only greatness. Which is the stuff of legends.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Family-style: Mary Jo and Johnny Mosca are happy to talk about and serve their legendary Italian cuisine. Just don't mess with their mystique.