On a lengthy, tour of Europe several years ago my wife and I made lifelong friends while traversing Italy. We have returned to Milan and Florence, often, and have spent a lot of time with those friends. Every return visit over the past few years has ended with the same sentence, “You must come visit us in Mississippi.” Two weeks ago, Annagloria and Enzo Corti from Tavarnelle Val di Pesa in the city of Florence and the region of Tuscany finally made it.
We all spent the first few days in Mississippi. I wrote about that leg of the visit last week. The final full day was spent in New Orleans.
I debated whether to take them down to New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, or to wait until Ash Wednesday, when all the craziness was over. It made sense for two people from Italy, who were here during Mardi Gras, to see Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans. Then, on the other hand, the crowds are so thick it’s hard to get a true “feel” on the city during all of that madness. In the end, we spent another day in Mississippi (they had a blast) and headed to our apartment early Wednesday morning.
This year Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day (Easter is on April Fool’s), and I had secured reservations weeks in advance. Choosing which restaurants to visit was the most challenging part of my hosting duties. New Orleans is the #2 restaurant city in America. Which two restaurants would be the best choices to give them an accurate taste of the city? I typically look for the local, casual joints, but that didn’t seem like the best option in this case. If I only had a lunch and dinner in New Orleans— and it was just me I was feeding— I would probably eat lunch at Stein’s Deli (which isn’t a good representation of New Orleans’ cuisine, but an excellent Philly/New York deli), and dinner at Brightsen’s (which is the ultimate representation of New Orleans cuisine, but more casual than I was looking for with my two Italian guests on Valentine’s Day).
I thought about Galitoire’s for lunch. It doesn’t get any more “classic New Orleans” than that, but we were headed down in the late morning and I thought a classic New Orleans brunch would be a better fit. I settled in on brunch at Brennan’s. It would be a nice walk through the Quarter from the apartment, and they could dine in one of the great brunch spots in the country and get a good taste of New Orleans culture at the same time. Brennan’s underwent a $25 million renovation a few years ago when Ralph Brennan took the reins.
At Brennan’s Annagloria and Enzo ate their second bowl of gumbo in as many days (their first was at the Purple Parrot in Hattiesburg), followed it up with Eggs Benedict, and ate Bananas Foster in the room where that dish was invented. They had already fallen in love with gumbo. The French-in-origin Benedict was substantially richer than the foods they are used to in Italy, but they loved it. And the Bananas Foster was the perfect ending to a very fine meal. They were starting to “get” New Orleans.
On our walk back to the apartment I took them through Jackson Square. The typical fortune tellers, street artists, and musicians were there. Europe has the same thing. Though there was a group of street performers who had drawn a crowd. When one asked for volunteers from the sizable crowd gathered, I pushed Enzo out front. About 10 minutes later, he was dancing as part of their act. Enzo broke out some Euro disco steps. The crowd went wild. It was a 100% tourist move, but the two Italians loved it.
For dinner I wanted to take them to a refined, upscale dinner. It would be the final meal with them until I see them in their part of the world in April. I thought about Commander’s Palace, but that would be doubling up on the Brennan family in one day. Not a bad option, but I thought we’d give someone else a shot. Several of my go-tos were booked three weeks out, and so I landed on Restaurant August and they loved it.
I had spent years talking them into coming to visit the South. It wasn’t until several weeks before they arrived that the reality of the visit began to settle in, and I started worrying about dropping the ball as their host. What would I show them that would be representative in this area? What about history? Annagloria comes from a city where the Renaissance was started. Enzo lives near a road that is over 2,000 years old. New Orleans, one of our oldest cities, is celebrating their 300th birthday this year. That’s “new” over there.
I wanted to showcase our area in the best light possible. In the end, it wasn’t the history, the scenery, or the buildings. It was the people and the food. I should have known it all along. It’s what I have said for years— one of America’s best-kept secrets is the food and culture down South.
Annagloria and Enzo had spent the previous three weeks in Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C. The entire time they were in Mississippi they talked about how much better the food tasted down here than up there. I don’t know the Italian word for “bland,” but Enzo kept using it.
I was able to see my home state and New Orleans through fresh eyes that had no preconceived notions on what either place is or was. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the pine trees. They don’t see Mississippi though the lens of a cruel past. They see it for what it is today— a great place, filled with caring, loving, and enthusiastic people, and a place where the food tastes better than the food up north. They see Mississippi as the undisputed birthplace of blues, rock-and-roll, and country-and-western music, and appreciate the sizable and unmatched gift that has been to the rest of the world.
They see New Orleans as a very exotic place and the birthplace of jazz, and the most European city in all of America.
Enzo had stated for years, “I imagine New Orleans with music playing on every corner.” On the walk back home that night, I took them down the three-block stretch of Frenchman Street that actually DOES have a live band in every bar and restaurant, on both sides of the street. He was wide-eyed and almost in a state of sensory overload as he walked from door to door. He listened a little. He danced a little. The look on his face was one of sheer joy. “I love this place,” he said, as we turned the corner past Snug Harbor. “I will bring my entire family back next year.”