Whether it’s Fellini films or pizza, Italian culture has always had a certain pull for us in the States. When we think of Italy, we think of aesthetic elegance, romance, and a laid-back, joyful way of life. Or maybe that’s just what the Italophiles like me, who’ve been taken in by the genius melodrama of a Verdi opera, or the sublime flavor balance of good pistachio gelato, think. We are the type of people who wonder if you can spend a whole weekend exploring Italian-influenced art, architecture, music, and food — practically pretending to be on vacation in Italy — in an American city. After all, we crave the enchantment of Italian culture, and we’d like to find it closer to home, in places we can explore without dealing with customs and international flights.
Inspired by the recent arrival of the FIAT 500 on American shores, Flavorwire sent me to Miami, New Orleans, and San Francisco to find out if it was possible to recreate Italian grandeur right here stateside. In these cities where you might not expect to pull off a weekend jaunt all’Italiana, I discovered a surprising number of spots that retained their local flavor while staying true to the Italian spirit. Click through to explore the second of my three action-packed weekend itineraries that will show you where to find the magic of Italy without having to cross the Atlantic.
Here’s one thing that you won’t learn on your typical French Quarter tour in New Orleans: the area used to be nicknamed “Little Palermo” because of most of its inhabitants in the early 20th century were Sicilian immigrants. The city most known for its Creole culture also has an under-the-radar Italian heritage. In seeking out the city’s secret Italy, I traced a course of two types of places: those that have preserved the Italian immigrant culture of the past, and recent projects that mix contemporary Italian culture with New Orleans style.
Evening: Uptown Escape
Ancora. Photo credit: Alexia Nader
The neon drinks and fried food of the French Quarter may be calling — ignore them and head to the up-and-coming Freret Street area, in Uptown New Orleans. There you can whet your appetite with one of the Italian-inflected New Orleans classic cocktails at Ancora, like the house sazerac — a potent combination of rye whiskey, sambuca, grapefruit liqueur, and bitters. Then make a meal of skillfully fired Neapolitan-style pizzas and be sure to include the diavola, which gets its kick from spicy salami and chili pepper. If you’re game for further cocktail experimentation, walk down the street for drinks at Cure, a cocktail bar whose complex creations are based on old-time home remedies.
Ancora: 4508 Freret Street 504-324-1636. Cure: 4905 Freret Street; (504) 302-2357.
Morning: Past and Postmodern
Piazza d’Italia. Photo credit: Alexia Nader
While the rest of New Orleans is still recovering from last night, make your way downtown to the Warehouse District, where you’ll have Charles Moore’s postmodern space, the Piazza d’Italia, all to yourself. At the far end of the open space, columns, arches, and pedestals in pastel colors are layered so densely, they almost seem surreal. Relish its weirdness; for better or for worse, there’s really nothing like it.
At the American Italian Museum, located adjacent to the Piazza d’Italia, you’ll get an introduction to the history of Italian Americans in New Orleans. A section on 1891 lynching of 11 Italians describes a dark chapter of the city’s history of immigration. You can also view colorful props and costumes that have been used in Italian American parades and celebrations in New Orleans throughout the last century. But if you want the dish on the once-powerful local Sicilian mob, you’re out of luck.
537 South Peters Street; Adults $8; admission by appointment.
Afternoon: Southern Stuffing
Central Grocery. Photo credit: Alexia Nader
A muffuletta sandwich in the French Quarter is a natural next step after learning about Italian life at the docks. Skip the copycat delis around the French Market and head to Central Grocery where the sandwich was invented in the 1930s. The hefty hero, filled with mortadella, provolone, soppressata, and olive relish, will fortify you for the rest of the day.
Then let pure gluttony motivate you to take a detour to the Sicilian sweets shop Angelo Brocato‘s in Mid-City. Try the cassata, a playful-looking cake with alternating layers of sponge cake and ricotta, topped with colorful marzipan decorations. For a more climate-appropriate dessert, there’s always the other Sicilian darling, a cone of pistachio gelato.
Central Grocery: 923 Decatur Street; (504) 523-1620. Angelo Brocato’s Italian Ice Cream & Italian Desserts: 214 North Carrollton Avenue; (504) 486-1465.
Evening: Italian Jive
National WWII Museum. Photo credit: Soul of America
Unless you’re up on your jazz history, you might not know that Italian-Americans — like Nick LaRocca, who led the Original Dixieland Jazz Band — were major players in the early New Orleans jazz scene. But you’ve undoubtedly heard of one Italian-New Orleans native: Louis Prima, a flamboyant performer and trumpeter, and the man rumored to have inspired Elvis to start moving his hips. At the Stage Door Canteen Theater in the National World War II Museum you can catch a show based on Prima’s repertoire, which encompassed an impressive variety of styles — Dixieland jazz, swing, lounge music, and rhythm and blues.
Stage Door Canteen, National World War II Museum, 945 Magazine Street, 528-1944; 8pm Friday-Saturday; 1pm Sunday.
A late-night snack and glass of wine at John Besh’s Domenica in the Roosevelt Hotel is not a bad way to follow the show. But if you want something more intimate — to linger over a big glass of Italian red while nestling into plush furniture — Tommy’s Wine Bar is the right spot.
Domenica: 123 Baronne Street; 504-648-6020; Appetizers around $16; Pasta around $22. Tommy’s Wine Bar: 752 Tchoupitoulas Street; 504-525-4790.
Morning: Spooky Mansions
Garden District mansion. Photo credit: Alexia Nader
The mansions in the Garden District of New Orleans exhibit some of the best domestic examples of Italianate architecture — a style that takes cues from various Italian Renaissance designs. Many of the houses were built in the 1800s and have had a succession of zany, famous owners like Anne Rice and Trent Reznor. Head to the Garden District Book Shop for a guided tour and learn about how these houses were built and transformed.
2727 Prytania Street, 504-947-2120. Garden District Tour. 2 hours long. Adults $20.
Sweet corn gelato. Photo credit: Alexia Nader
Before hitting the road, make one last stop at La Divina Gelateria on Magazine Street in the Garden District — a cone of sweet corn gelato will ease the pain of having to leave this brilliant city.
3005 Magazine Street; 504-342-2634.