NOLA 300: Italian immigrants leave a legacy you can taste and hear

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NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans was never the same after the Italians arrived.

"Believe it or not, by 1915, 80% of the French Quarter was actually Italian," says Enrico Villamaino, historian at the American Italian Cultural Center in downtown New Orleans. "It was known as Little Italy or Little Palermo."

Palermo is the capital of the Italian island of Sicily. It's a busy seaport, which served as New Orleans' Italian connection.

"For many years, to be Sicilian and to be Italian in New Orleans was the the same thing," says Villamaino.

When Italian immigrants arrived at the Port of New Orleans, they often worked and lived in the French Quarter.

"One of the very first jobs that a newly arrived immigrant would have would be unloading boats at the Mississippi River or stocking the produce shelves and selling those wares in the French Market," Villamaino says.

Near the French Market is Central Grocery, started by Salvatore Lupo, a Sicilian immigrant, more than 100 years ago. Its contribution to New Orleans culture: the muffuletta.

Another culinary contribution by the family of Italian immigrants is the Roman Candy cart. In 1915, street vendor Sam Cortese decided to sell the sweet treat out of a mule-drawn cart. More than 100 years later, it's still run by his grandson, Ron Kottemann.

Italians had a thing for sweets. Angelo Brocato Italian Ice Cream and Pastry is another 100-year-plus cultural institution in New Orleans. It started in the French Quarter when that was the center of Italian life in the city. It later moved to its Mid-City location on Carrollton Avenue.

Italian immigrants had more to offer than good eats. They also had a talent for music.

"Nick LaRocca is seen, sort of, as the godfather of Jazz," says Villamaino. "He had a five-piece instrumental band. And, they have the distinction of releasing the very first jazz album in 1917. It was called the 'Livery Stable Blues.'"

And, another Italian American artist, Louis Prima, hit it big as a jazz musician and stayed there for a while, even though his audience's tastes were fickle.

"Louis Prima was always evolving his style of play and his style of composition," explains Villamaino. "Consequently, he was at the forefront of jazz for 40 years."

"The Italians contributed a lot to the cuisine and music," he says. "It's often more tasted and heard than seen. But, they did play quite a role in the development what we think of as the modern New Orleans culture."​

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