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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

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

New Orlean Dining: Muffuletta Pizza at Mo's on the West Bank

Perhaps that’s a roundabout way of saying that

Mo’s was much better than I expected because

I wasn’t expecting much in the first place.

I doubt I would have ever thought to go to Mo’s Pizza in Westwego on New Orleans’s West Bank if it hadn’t been for my old pal Slider Bob, who has been luring me into all manner of misadventures for more than thirty years.

We were having pre-dawn coffee one morning at the Beagle Bagel in Jackson, Mississippi, when in preparation for an upcoming blog piece, I asked Slider what was the best thing he’d ever eaten in New Orleans. Knowing Slider had been a partner in various Crescent City apartments for more than twenty years, I figured he’d hem and haw, furl his brow and make a dozen false starts before he narrowed the field.

Before that thought could finish taking form in my head, Slider said, “the Muffulatta Pizza at Port of Call.” I was surprised at the speed with which he answered until he said, “or maybe the fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House.” Well, I know about the chicken at Willie Mae’s because I had introduced Slider to it on a previous visit. And I knew about the Port of Call on Esplanade, because over the past four decades, I’d eaten several dozen of its near mythic hamburgers, reputed to be New Orleans’ best for years. I vaguely recall having seen the muffuletta pizza on the menu, along with steaks, but had never ordered either one, based on the headstrong belief that if a place is famous for burgers, order the burger.

I told Slider I’d try one the next time I was in town and a crestfallen look came across his face as he told me the Port of Call no longer offered it. The truth is, if someone cooked up an ersatz gospel based around the glory of a muffuletta, Slider would elbow every acolyte out of the way until he became the lead prophet. Hell, the nickname “Slider” was hung in front of plain old Bob when he discovered a magazine recipe for muffuletta sliders and he hasn’t been quite right ever since.

A few days went by and I was Google-ing around New Orleans looking for new places to explore, so just for the hell of it, I typed in “muffuletta pizza,” figuring it might be fairly common in a pizza-crazy town where muffuletta sandwiches are almost as common as a “poor boy.” As it turned out, I could only find one place that offered the pizza-sandwich hybrid, Mo’s Pizza in Westwego.

Westwego is a small working-class suburb on the West Bank, nestled among commercial fishing areas, refineries and other industries that rely as much upon muscle as brainpower. Located on Highway 90 West, closer to the unnerving Huey P. Long Bridge than the Crescent City Connection, Westwego has become an unexpectedly regular stop for The Sensible One and me. The reason for our visits is a collection of tumbledown buildings housing Mom and Pop seafood merchants, where the most we’ve ever paid for fresh-caught 6-count shrimp is $5.25 a pound, a price that’s tantamount to misdemeanor larceny.

About a mile away from the ersatz fish market, a couple of blocks off the main drag stands Mo’s. It’s in a non-descript metal building, painted the color of banana pudding, and there’s nothing noteworthy about it except that it’s probably larger than you might expect for a local pizzeria. With its bland exterior and out-of-the-way location, I can only think of two reasons why the business ever located there: (1), the building was cheap, and (2), no, I mean really cheap.

In planning our visit, I had noticed that local restaurant writer Tom Fitzmorris had listed it as the fourteenth best pizza joint in New Orleans, which sounded promising, but also kvetched about the sauce being “a bit sweeter than optimum,” which did not. To be perfectly honest, and maybe a wee bit snobbish, I didn’t approach our visit to Mo’s with a lot of anticipation or confidence.

One of the nice things about low expectations is that the odds are more or less equal you’ll be surprised when a restaurant is better that you ever imagined, as are the odds you’ll be disappointed in a visit to a place that has a glitzier reputation it can’t live up to. Perhaps that’s a roundabout way of saying that Mo’s was much better than I expected because I wasn’t expecting much in the first place.

Mo’s interior is almost as unimpressive as its exterior. It’s a barn of a room with utilitarian café furniture set far apart to fill the cavernous space. Décor is what you’d expect in such a place: beer neons, Saints paraphernalia, and some football memorabilia scattered about. In a room so long on functionality and short on charm, the checkered vinyl tablecloths become a “decorator touch.”

The menu contains advertising for seventeen local businesses, and a look at the advertisers provides fairly decent insight into the world Mo’s serves. Among them you’ll find a tire center, a tint shop, two bingo halls, roofing contractors, a pooch grooming place, a tanning salon, a balloon boutique and a hock shop among others.

While there may be a raffish charm to the downscale décor and the menu with so many ads it looks like a NASCAR special, it’s important to keep in mind that a restaurant with a predominately middle class clientele doesn’t last in as competitive a market as New Orleans unless it serves better than good food and plenty of it. Mo’s does just that. There may be nothing there that will absolutely knock your socks off, but that’s not what Mo’s is all about and in evaluating a place like Mo’s, that’s something to be kept in mind.

The menu is short and to the point. The place is first and foremost a pizza joint and keeping an informal eye on what people were taking away from the pick-up window, I’d guess that pizza is 90% of the business. There are no surprises on the rest of the menu, it predictably including five appetizers, three salads, a couple of turnovers, three sandwiches and four red gravy Italian entrees. There are also two sets of weekly specials, four desserts, beer and soft drinks.

The pizzas are gargantuan. Being rookies in the joint, The Sensible One and I ordered a small muffuletta pizza. As we waited the twenty to twenty-five minutes it took to be prepared, we watched what other customers were getting for lunch. The vast majority of the guys in there were relatively big and most were dressed along the lines of Larry the Cable Guy. To a man, they were ordering two slices and that was a lot of food.

When our pizza arrived, it was eighteen inches in diameter cut into eight slices. (Taking out a calculator and messing around with square roots, radii and pi, I discovered than the inner 50% of the pizza would still be more than a foot in diameter. An average small pizza is usually ten inches.) For the record, we each had two slices, boxed up the rest and made two more meals out of it later.

The term “slice” is almost deceptive in the Deep South, where it seems most pizza have many more pieces, each sliced smaller. Mo’s pizzas are old-style New York/Boston/Philly “street food” slices. The nine-inch slices have a thin enough crust to roll and walk with. (First fold the tip of the slice until it touches the crust. Run your index finger down the center from the crust, and then use your thumb and middle finger to roll the outside edges in half around your index finger.)

The muffuletta pizza itself is very good. Containing the traditional ingredients of the sandwich (ham, Genoa salami, Mortadella, homemade cheese, olive salad and a traditional olive oil sauce), it’s difficult to either agree or disagree with Fitzmorris’ evaluation of the sauce. If there was any of the offending sauce, the taste was masked if not totally covered up by the vibrancy of the other ingredients.

As this is being written, Slider Bob is yet to make the trip to Mo’s to compare its muffuletta pizza with that formerly offered by Port of Call. I know for a fact that Mo’s is now on his radar and I can hardly wait to heart the evaluation by a man who never met a muffuletta he didn’t like. Having known Slider for thirty years, my guess is he’ll call it “a slice of heaven.”

While I probably would never suggest Mo’s is anything more than it is, namely a working class neighborhood pizza joint, I like the hell out of the place. I like the improbability of its location and downscale interior, and the cooking is solid. One final thing that makes me feel good about Mo’s is that every spring they have “Mo’s Fest,” a bands and food fundraiser, which in its first nine years raised more than $130,000 for the West Westwego Fire Department, the Police Department and Children’s Hospital. There’s something nice about visiting an establishment with its heart in the right place.

While I’m not willing to say that Mo’s is worth the eleven-mile drive from the heart of downtown New Orleans, it’s certainly worth a visit should you happen to be in the neighborhood. Perhaps it’s nothing more than good folks and good food, but what’s wrong with that? After all, man cannot live by fois gras alone.

Mo’s Pizza

Neighborhood Pizzeria

1112 Avenue H, Westwego

Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Accepts most credit cards

No reservations

Telephone: (504) 341-9650

Website: www.mospizza.net

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Orleans Dining: tout de suite in historic Algiers Point

All said, tout de suite seems to be

an organic centerpiece of what many consider

one of New Orleans’ most agreeable neighborhoods.

Now and then, with a soupcon of serendipity, I’ll stumble across a café or restaurant so precisely reflective of its location that I can’t help but wonder if the area surrounding it shaped its essence or the other way around.

Well, I’ve stumbled across such a place where I would never have thought to look. It’s a coffee shop named “tout de suite,” and it’s three blocks from the front door of The Sensible One’s and my part-time home/offices and full-time hideaway in New Orleans.

While New Orleans has often been cited as “the most European of American cities,” it has also been argued that New Orleans is not so much city at all, but rather a patchwork of interwoven villages. The most famous and oldest “village,” of course, is the French Quarter, the perimeter of which is rigidly defined by three streets and the Mississippi River.

Directly across the river from the French Quarter lies New Orleans’ second oldest village, Algiers Point, which was founded in 1719. The plat of land itself is more or less rectangular, roughly a mile across and a half-mile deep, and two of its four sides are nestled below the levee that kept the historic neighborhood dry during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The primary method of transportation between Algiers Point the more “major” parts of New Orleans is, at least for the time being, the ferry running from the foot of Canal Street to the Algiers terminal. In this era of never ending budget crises, terminating the ferry service between “The Point” and the “mainland” never seems to go off the table, but it seems that every time the idea comes up, it is shot down – at least so far. Pedestrians and cyclists ride the ferry free, and cars traveling into the city proper are charged a dollar while paying nothing to escape. Considering the unleashed insanity of Crescent City drivers, I suspect people would be happier plunking down their dollars to leave the city.

Until you see the high-rise buildings across the river peeking over the top of the levee, it’s easy to forget you’re less than a half-mile from the pulsating heart of New Orleans. The levee works to muffle most city noise. Beyond the bellowing of ships’ horns on the adjacent Mississippi River or the steam-driven tooting of an out-of-tune calliope atop the tourist sternwheeler Natchez, the neighborhood’s most common sounds are dogs barking and the peal of church bells.

Even though the community inside the levee is Kansas flat, it doesn’t feel that way due to tree-lined streets and a collection of residential styles that cause a constant nodding of visitors’ heads as they take in the panoply of architectural details, inviting porticoes, ornamented rooflines and vibrant colors of a bygone era. With a history squarely footed in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Algiers Point presents a mélange of homes ranging from cozy bungalows and Creole cottages to the occasional stately Victorian sandwiched into a line of traditional New Orleans “shotgun” houses.

The residents of Algiers Point are every bit as eclectic and diverse as the architecture. Our neighbors include two brothers who both work at the firehouse down the street, a food salesman who drives a fading car that’s little more than a rolling advertisement for Louisiana (Brand) Fish Fry, and a fellow who returned home after eight years in Hollywood to work in New Orleans’ burgeoning movie industry. There are architects and lawyers, of course, even a few television newscasters, but despite its recent gentrification, this is essentially a working class neighborhood and, to a great degree, it’s the wild spectrum of demographics that makes the neighborhood work.

Diagonally across Verret and Alix Streets from tout de suite stands a towering Catholic church and directly across the street is a triangular-shaped park that seems to provide a nirvana for pooches. In a community as dog-friendly as the Point, where before and after work dog walking provides the only real traffic congestion, it’s a common sight to see all breeds tethered to outdoor tables, lampposts or almost anything too heavy to be dragged away and buried, waiting patiently for their owners to emerge with carry-out boxes.

Within such an incongruous urban milieu, a community café like tout de suite may not only be appropriate but inevitable. More so than a corner tavern, tout de suite serves as the informal switchboard and chatter center for Algiers Point. The center of this information exchange is the back table with its ever-changing rotation of regulars, but the whole place is so small that casual eavesdropping and the sifting of harebrained rumor from certifiable fact is unavoidable.

The building in which tout de suite is housed is like a great many corner buildings in history-rich Algiers Point. At one point, it was probably a Mom-and-Pop grocery or a tavern, maybe a drugstore or any of the other type of small retail establishments whose trade area didn’t extend more than several blocks; it could have been any or all of those. The fixed awnings that wrap around the building’s two street facings are strung with incandescent lights, cover several gingham covered café tables and protect a hodgepodge of potted plants. During brutal summer months, the plants are occasionally misted like produce in a supermarket. A large bulletin board is covered with flyers, upcoming community event posters and homespun ads for neighborhood services.

The interior is as homey in a left-handedly attractive manner. When the place was being transformed from its previous incarnation in 2004, the tongue-in-groove woodwork walls were sanded down, but before every speck of paint was removed, the wise decision was made to polyurethane the walls -- paint remnants and all -- accentuating the building’s vintage provenance. The soft light from the large windows is assisted by discreet canister lights and accentuated by a pair of stained-glass transoms over the front window. In one corner is a console piano, upon which occasional weekend brunch-time musicians play. Quite often on Sundays, there’s a banjo player. The rest of the time WWOZ-FM, a volunteer operated station that seems to serve as the unofficial soundtrack for New Orleans, floats throughout the room.

Once you walk in and make your way to the self-service counter, chances are you’ll tell yourself that you’re in a pleasant enough café but you won’t have found many items surprising for a neighborhood coffee shop.

The food offered is by no means ambitious, the unexpectedly long menu (30+ items) dominated by breakfasts, panini and salads. What is truly surprising, however, is the obvious amount thought and attention to detail that has gone into both the ingredients and preparation of such a traditional menu. Parmignano Reggiano. Cold-pressed flax seed oil. Ciabatta buns. Cilantro pesto. Hardwood smoked bacon. Homemade honey-basil vinaigrette. It’s not the stuff of your average American neighborhood café, but then Algiers Point certainly can’t be called a cookie-cutter community.

In addition to the startlingly sophisticated dishes coming out of the micro-kitchen, there is always a selection of croissants, muffins and Danishes in a case by the register and a cabinet with a variety of generally healthy ready-to-eat cereals below the counter. There’s a nearby cooler full of fruit juices and soft drinks, but the drinks de rigueur are several blends of coffee and espresso. Beer and wine are not available for purchase.

If there’s one factoid that defines the ultimate appeal of tout de suite and also encapsulates life in this laidback village in the shadow of a great American city, it’s this: Nowhere within Algiers Point will you find a franchise food outlet, and I would imagine that were one to be announced it would be met with a level of enthusiasm equal to one greeting an announcement that one of this historical district’s picturesque blocks was going to be leveled to make room for a Wal-Mart.

All said, tout de suite seems to be an organic centerpiece of what many consider one of New Orleans’ most agreeable neighborhoods. So if it’s one of those sun-dappled mornings when all is right with the world and you happen to find yourself strolling the tree-lined streets as clocks spin backward to a gentler age, pat the handsome head of a happy-go-lucky pup, follow the church bells and settle into a place you’ll be disinclined to leave.

tout de suite

Neighborhood café

347 Verret Street

in historic Algiers Point

Open daily from 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

MasterCard, VISA and Discover accepted

No reservations

Telephone: (504) 362-2264

Website: www.toutdesuitecafe.com