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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

Monday, August 16, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Venezia


Vieni, ordine, mangiare, divertirsi, salario, congedo.

(Come, order, eat, enjoy, pay, scram.)

New Orleans has its own culinary patois, an often curious jumble of misnamed items (barbecued shrimp, Bordelaise sauce), mangled pronunciations (“my-nez” for mayonnaise, “praw-leen” for praline) and odd names that start to make sense if you think about them long enough. My favorite of the latter group is “red gravy.”

Chances are, you know it as “spaghetti sauce,” maybe “marinara” if you come from a city with a large Italian population, or maybe even “red sauce” if you grew up in the heartland. But in New Orleans, red gravy it is, and I like the name almost as much as I like the sauce.

There’s something earthy about the term “red gravy.” It’s what Stanley Kowalski would tell Stella he spilled on his bowling shirt. While it certainly can be exquisitely prepared by a capocuoco di cuicina in a tony trattoria, you can also buy it in quart jars at the supermarket.

The reason for writing about red gravy is not to wax rhapsodic about its flavor or spectrum of varieties, but rather to put one of my favorite restaurants in proper context. That restaurant is the original Venezia location on Carrolton at Canal, and the best way to describe it is as a red gravy place.

Venezia has been around since 1957, and is reputed to have been a closer-to-home substitute for Mosca’s, the legendary roadhouse that was used as a gathering place by alleged Mafia kingpin Carlos Marcello. There is no doubt that Venezia was considerably closer to the Marcello mansion in Metairie, but it’s difficult to ascertain whether the restaurant actually has a scandalous history or if that’s just a legend that current management allows to go unchallenged, because it’s good for business. At any rate, there were very few changes made to the place during its first 48 years, and if Katrina hadn’t flooded it, the place might still look like someone broke the clock back during the Eisenhower administration.

New Orleans, of course, cherishes its older institutions with fervor, and it’s apparent with your first look at Venezia. The building is a nondescript white box, like so many old establishments in the city. Above the building length canopy, which protects guests from inclement weather, is a vintage neon sign reading, “Venezia/Pizza Pie/Italian Food.” How long has it been since you’re heard anyone under the age of sixty mention a “pizza pie,” let alone seen it glowing on a restaurant’s neon?

Once you go inside, there’s no foyer to speak of and you’ll find yourself standing in the middle of the dining room. No one seems to mind, hell, no one seems to notice, but before long you’ll either be lead to your table or, depending on the crowd, to the bar in the back of the house for a wait that usually isn’t too long. Soon enough you’ll learn the reason for short waits is the speed with which the restaurant tries to turn over its tables.

The room is plain, and what little art there is on the walls consists mainly of clich├ęd images of Italy. The tables are close together, close enough that on one of our first visits, The Sensible One and I couldn’t help but overhear a young couple on an obvious first date discussing restaurants (which is how we learned about the amazing fried bell pepper rings at the Franky & Johnny’s bar on Arabella Street).

One quick glance around the restaurant made it clear than not only were we the only non-residents in the room, but the way our ruddy Scotch-Irish complexions stood out, we were likely the only non-Italians as well.

When our server brought the menus, it was plain to see the restaurant’s emotional linkage to the substantial Italian immigration into New Orleans during the Nineteenth Century. Bordered by the red, green and white of the Italian tricolore was a line drawing of la Piazza di San Marco in Venezia (proper Italian for Venice) with a couple and their gondolier in a foreground gondola. I may reluctantly concede the image isn’t quite as hackneyed as a winking chef making the “okay” sign, but it’s certainly evocative of days gone by when the use of terms like “spaghetti house” and “pizza pie” were part of the everyday lexicon.

There are no surprises inside the Venezia menu, either. It’s no-nonsense Italian food: spaghetti, lasagna, veal parmigiana, eggplant and most of the other standard dishes people associate with home-style Italian. Even though the menu chooses to use the words “red sauce” instead of “red gravy,” Venezia isn’t fooling anybody with the possible exception of themselves. This is still a red gravy joint, the kind of neighborhood place where people bring mama, nonna and all the bambinos.

While the standard Italian fare is extremely good, albeit not terribly challenging, the pizza (pie) is outstanding. It comes in one size, fourteen inches cut into eight slices, and if you want something else, go somewhere else. The ingredients are what you’d expect, and the gimmick ingredient on the house special is a sprinkling of artichoke hearts.

When you order a pizza, don’t be surprised if your server isn’t terribly enthusiastic. The pizzas are prepped and cooked to order, a process that takes more time than the traditional Italian fare, and the longer the time a family spends at the table, the less often the table turns over, meaning the less money the server makes.

While the staff at Venezia will never utter the first disapproving word to a table of people who choose to linger or dawdle, don’t be surprised if you get the feeling they’d be just as happy if your were on your merry way. The truth is, they would be. A good slogan for the place, or at least an accurate one, might be: Come, order, eat, enjoy, pay, scram. It’s nothing personal, just business.

What ultimately makes Venezia worth a visit, more than its food or service or the room itself is its sheer authenticity. But be warned. The working class ambience will be charming to some, anathema to others. If you expect to be treated like visiting royalty in a restaurant, go somewhere else. If you’re willing to be treated like family, come on in.

You’ll soon come to realize that blue collar and red gravy are a couple of New Orleans’ most flavorful colors.

Venezia, 134 N. Carrolton Avenue (at Canal Street)

Open Wednesday – Friday, 11 a.m. –10 p.m.

Saturday, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Sunday, 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Reservations and all major credit cards accepted.

Telephone: 504- 488-7991

Website: www.venezianeworleans.com

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