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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Friday, June 25, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Mosca's Restaurant

Photos Courtesy: www.moscasrestaurant.com

With Marcello’s rising star came rising forturnes, and with them came one Provino Mosca, an Italian emigrant to Chicago who took little time in gathering both a criminal record and an irresistible item on his resumé: personal chef for Al Capone.

At the end of the old Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a seasoned publisher tells a young buck reporter, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Whenever I hear the line, I think of Mosca’s,

If New Orleans is anything, it is a decidedly Southern city. As a lot, Southerners embrace their ghosts, spin yarns about them and if the whole truth happens to get in the way, well, print the legend.

Should you choose to have dinner at Mosca’s, and you indeed should, the cab ride from the French Quarter of the CBD (Central Business District) could easily cost more than your meal. You’ll get there one of two ways: taking modern highways through the soulless suburb of Harvey with its car lots and fast food joints, or by taking a white knuckle roller coaster ride over a rickety Erector set called the Huey Long Bridge, a Depression era span that will likely have you gridlocked in traffic several hundred feet over the Mississippi River, vibrated close to panic by the trains sharing the span, and all the time having a bleak conversation with your own mortality.

The first time I was taken to Mosca’s, many years ago, I was thoroughly convinced I was about to be killed and eaten. It’s in a nondescript, white plank roadhouse on a long, flat stretch of U.S. Highway 90 about five miles west of the rickety bridge. In fact, at first glance, it’s easy to mistake the place as abandoned. These days, there are more hints of civilization around it than there used to be, but that’s not saying much.

If you arrive after sundown, you’ll hear the steady drone of insects and the occasional mating call of frogs from the 178-acre parcel of swamp that runs along the south side of the highway and protects the roadhouse from both sides and the rear. Listen harder and you may start telling yourself you hear the ghosts of several dozen deadbeat gamblers, stool pigeons and double-crossing goombahs, all reputed to have been wrapped in chains and dispatched to eternity in the slime beneath the marshland’s boggy waters.

If anyone knows the whole story about Mosca’s, they’re not talking, no doubt a wise choice. There’s a history section on the restaurant’s website, and it tells the story of hard-working, patriotic Italian immigrants who, with grit, gumption, elbow grease and pluck, claimed their modest patch of the American Dream along a forlorn highway. It’s a great story, as far as it goes, but the legends surrounding Mosca’s suggest it doesn’t go far enough.

In its earliest years, the nondescript building was known as the Willswood Tavern, which looked more or less like any roadside bar in any south Louisiana parish. The tavern had once been an abandoned shed on the acreage that was owned by the Marcello family, alleged to have deep Mafia connections. At the end of World War II, Carlos Marcello (1910-1993), known behind his back as “The Little Man,” came to be regarded as “boss” of all organized crime operations in New Orleans, and Sundays at the Willswood became legendary.

From Lake Charles in the west to Gulfport (Mississippi) in the east, family captains and lieutenants would make their ways to the don’s unofficial headquarters at the Willswood to pay tribute (and his “taste” of the take) to Marcello. Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, a steady procession of bookies, madams, fences, corrupt law enforcement officials, pocketed politicos, loan sharks and other “associates” would take care of business with il padrone. Once the serious work was done, rivers of wine would flow, plate upon plate of Italian food would stream out of the kitchen and the raucous party would continue until the shadows grew long and daylight grew short.

With Marcello’s rising star came rising forturnes, and with them came one Provino Mosca, an Italian emigrant to Chicago who took little time in gathering both a criminal record and an irresistible item on his resumé: personal chef for Al Capone. Marcello installed Mosca in the kitchen of the Willswood and even went so far as to build a house for the chef’s family close to the tavern.

Circa 1960, Marcello moved his headquarters from the Willswood and the restaurant, already growing famous, became Mosca’s. Part of the legend is that the restaurant and the surrounding acreage of swamp were gifted to the Mosca family by Marcello. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t, but either way, it makes a charming asterisk, so print the legend.

Provino Mosca passed on in 1962, followed by Carlos Marcello in 1993. Over the ensuing years, the restaurant has come to more closely resemble what is written in the website’s antiseptic history than the embodiment of a dark and sinister world, which would rightly include black sedans with rolled steel mudguards, the chatter of Thompson submachine guns, whispering godfathers, Mustache Petes, wise guys, goombahs and gun molls. No matter how colorful as such imagery may be, the real legend is considerably more flavorful.

More than sixty years after Provino Mosca first walked into the roadhouse kitchen, successive generations of his family continue to put out some of New Orleans’ best Sicilian-by-way-of-the-bayou cooking. In a city where you rarely have to venture more than a few blocks to find superlative food, crowds of local residents continue to risk rickety bridges and desolate miles to pack the place.

The menu is surprisingly short. Only four specialties are listed along with four types of spaghetti, a filet mignon, quail, Cornish hen and a homemade sausage that could very well be the city’s gold standard.

The four specialties are worth special note. Least famous among the four is a traditional chicken cacciatore, which allows diners to evaluate the kitchen’s comparative chops, considering the ubiquity of the dish in America’s Italian restaurants. In the same neighborhood is Chicken a la Grande, the house variation on classic rosemary chicken, but amped up with generous amounts of olive oil, white wine and enough garlic to send Dracula packing back to Transylvania. Somewhat sheepishly, I confess to avoiding the a la Grande on my first visits to Mosca’s, mistakenly thinking it would prove a rather pedestrian chicken dish. After one bite, I stood corrected.

Shrimp Mosca

The two specialties that attract the most attention are the eponymous Shrimp and Oysters Mosca. Shrimp Mosca is an Italianized adaptation of traditional New Orleans style barbecue shrimp – sautéed in plenty of butter with torqued-up garlic, rosemary and oregano. Despite the similarity in names, the Oysters Mosca are confidently seasoned, topped with a hearty layer of breadcrumbs and baked in an old-fashioned metal pie pan. Both dishes are, in a word, peerless.

Despite the brevity of the menu, it remains a test of indecision. Repeat customers have learned the only practicable formula to remedy their wavering is to bring as many people as they can pack in their car, have everyone order something different, put it all in the center of the table and go after it “family style.” The only drawback I’ve found to this system is that while I get a taste of everything, I never seem to get enough of anything.

Time doesn’t have much meaning at Mosca’s. Everything is cooked to order, and some dishes take close to an hour to get to the table. This sometimes leads to the staggered delivery of plates, and if all the plates happen to reach your party at the same time, don’t be overly surprised if the temperatures prove inconsistent. The only know cure for this situation is another glass of wine. Cent’anni!

A couple of caveats are in order. First, they don’t take reservations on Saturday night except for very large parties. Even though the restaurant accepts reservations Tuesday through Friday nights, expect a wait, sometimes quite lengthy. Secondly, like many old-line New Orleans restaurants, the only coin of the realm honored is cash.

Finally, in terms of ambience, Mosca’s remains an unadorned roadhouse after sixty-plus years, and several generations of New Orleanians wouldn’t have it any other way. A nibble here, a nibble there and neither will you.

With all due apologies to the crusty old editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “Don’t print the legend. Eat it.”

Mosca’s Restaurant, 4137 U.S. Highway 90 West, Avondale, Louisiana 70094

Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Dark Sunday and Monday

Cash only

Call 504-436–8950 or 504-436–9942 after 4:30 p.m. to make reservations.
No reservations taken on Saturdays, except for large parties.

Webstie: www.moscasrestaurant.com

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