In exile on the Northshore for 5 years now, I always enjoy having time to spend in the city. Having partners-in-crime always helps, and this past weekend it was none other than Nola, Captain Sarcastic and my sister, with guest appearances from Nola and CS’ menagerie, Lucy, Zella and Peanut.
Saturday started in a fine New Orleans tradition, a breakfast of beignets and cafe au lait at the Morning Call. Not as well known to the outside world as its French Quarter counterpart Cafe Du Monde, the Morning Call was originally located in the Quarter and in its day was probably the more well-known of the two.
Both are as old as the hills, Cafe Du Monde established in 1862; Morning Call in 1870. Morning Call moved to the Fat City section of Metairie near Lakeside Mall in 1974. I remember having my first beignet ever as a child at the French Quarter location shortly before the move to Metairie was announced. I thought at the time it was crazy, “Who would want to move to Metairie?”–like a fourth grader in Algiers is wise about these things.
Saturday’s offerings of strong coffee and hot crisp fried dough covered in powdered sugar ($1.50 for the coffee, $1.50 for the donuts, sweet!–really!) brought back memories. Most of the crowd seemed to be regulars who greeted each other in accents straight out da’ parish (St. Bernard Parish, that is). It made me wonder if I was indeed west of the 17th Street Canal.
A side trip to the knitting store will go uncommented upon; its only redeeming feature is that it was very close to my intended goal for the day: Nor-Joe’s Imports.
What can you say about Nor-Joe’s? This precious little grocery, tucked away off Metairie Road in Old Metairie, is a culinary and cultural gem. New Orleans, despite its French roots, is crawling with Italians and Scilians. Immigrants arrived by the boatload in New Orleans just as they did at Ellis Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their culinary traditions are deeply rooted in the city and Italian cuisine is almost as revered as is Creole cuisine (in fact, there is a whole sub-genre of Creole-Italian cooking). Go to Cafe Giovanni, Andrea’s, Sal & Judy’s or Impastato’s to see for yourself.
You walk in and immediately what I call “that Nor-Joe’s smell” hits you. Meats, cheeses, salt cod and dried herbs hang from the beams. Along with stuffed olives, stuffed artichokes and cheeses marinating on display behind the small deli counter, it’s got to smell like Italy will smell if I ever get there.
NOLA was impressed. She said it reminded her of Central Grocery, one of the oldest Italian stores in the French Quarter (and inventor of the muffuletta sandwich). Nor-Joe’s has the reputation for making a darn good muffuletta, and every time I visit there the deli is filling orders for them non-stop.
During a lull in her muffuletta-making, I asked the nice lady behind the counter for a quarter pound of serrano ham. Normally I would get some Italian prosciutto, but I spotted the serrano in the case and decided to give it a try. From Spain and similar to prosciutto, it’s a dry-cured salty treat.
She asked me whether I wanted the “red” one. I assumed she was referring to the label, but she held up the ham and it was covered in a red liquid. It looked like it was soaked in Creole seasoning, and I said, “It looks spicey.” She read off the label and said it was paprika and olive oil and gave me a slice to taste. It was not peppered at all; I said, “That’s pretty good, I’ll take it.” NOLA took a taste and concurred.
I recommended the prepared pasta sauces they have in the freezer. As I showed NOLA where they were, she spotted the frozen ravioli and picked up a package; apparently CS is a fan. The guy behind the counter told NOLA the puttanesca sauce was his favorite, so she picked up a package. He asked her if she knew what “puttanesca” meant, she did not. He said it’s “Lady of the evening.” Wikipedia is not so delicate with the translation and story behind the sauce:
The name originated in Naples after the local prostitutes, Pasta alla Puttanesca meaning “Pasta in the way a whore would make it”. The reason why the dish gained such a name is debated. One possibility is that the name is a reference to the sauce’s hot, spicy flavour and smell. Another is that the dish was offered to prospective customers at a low price to entice them into a house of ill repute.
Whatever the story, I’m sure the sauce is going to be great. I usually buy the Milanese (meat) sauce and it’s always fantastic. I rounded out my purchases with some pre-packaged prosciutto ends (a bargain) and some sopressata, a spicy salami made with wine.
On Sunday, NOLA, CS and I headed for the Quarter and day 3 of the French Quarter Fest. It was significantly more crowded than on Friday. The French Quarter parking pass was at the ready; spots to park on the street were, however, not to be found. After giving it a good go, we gave up on street parking and NOLA headed towards the old D.H. Holmes garage. No “LOT FULL” signs were out, as I was afraid of, but there was a sign announcing the elevator was out of order. NOLA remarked that the garage’s stairwells were notorious for smelling like pee, and after finding a spot on the 3rd floor we discovered she was indeed correct.