Monday, February 20, 2017

Celebration of Sicilian Heritage in Shreveport Hosted by Norla at Red River Brewing

Norla: Love Your Sicilian History
On February 19, the Norla Preservation Project hosted an amazing event at Red River Brewing in Shreveport in which four Sicilian Shreveport families shared stories, memories, memorabilia, and history in a panel discussion to a large crowd.

If you've been in Shreveport longer than five minutes, you can't miss the profound effect that these families, and many others of Sicilian descent, have made on this city.  Their restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses are legendary and even more profound, their work ethic, their love of family, and their spirit, has made Shreveport a better place to be. They became business owners, doctors, lawyers, writers, clergy, accountants, you name it.

Many of these families migrated to Shreveport through New Orleans. As you will see in Joe Fertitta's speech below, many were escaping civil strife and a poor economy in Italy. They came to America for opportunity and they became productive, working citizens. Then they became employers, many opening their own businesses. They shared their culture with their new country and they assimilated into the fabric of society while still keeping close their family ties and communities.

The event had a standing room only turnout. There were delicious home-made Italian cookies and
Pre-event beer tasting
iced tea. You could, of course, also choose from one of the many fine craft beers on tap at Red River and a dollar from each beer sale was donated to Norla. (If anyone has the recipe for those cookies that were jam filled, send it to me, please!)

The panel opened with Lynn Mandina who spoke about her family memories, many of which centered around food. Her family lived in Oil City. She and Vita Gregoria tag-teamed their discussion as one memory often provoked another one. They had plenty of memorabilia on a display table next to the panel filled with family photos, books, and documents to share with the audience.

Joe Fertitta was the third speaker and focused primarily on the restaurant industry. I was a bit late in starting my video of his discussion, but he was kind enough to share his notes with me and so I have transcribed the video for you and filled in the beginning that I missed on tape.  Joe and his family have been major contributors to the restaurant and grocery industry in Shreveport.

Here is Joe's speech:
Early Migration of Italians and Sicilians to Louisiana began in the 1870's after the unification of Italy by Giuseppe Garibaldi an Italian general, politician and nationalist. After the unification, Sicily was left with a failing economy, its fishing and agricultural economy had little or no industry while the northern part of Italy grew with the industrial revolution of the 19th century.  
This led to the migration of job seeking immigrants in the rural south who were trying to rebuild their economy after the civil war. New Orleans was the port of entry for many of our Sicilian ancestors and as they were able to find work, many of them went from workers, to employers of others as they established their own businesses as farmers, fishermen, laborers in the trades of plumbing, electrical, and construction businesses and as distributors of the food products these families looked for in their new country.  
Fertitta Family
 From the growth of these endeavors, grocery stores, restaurants and boarding houses that served meals to their boarders led to a thriving food service business in New Orleans and surrounding areas.  
Later some of these families migrated to Shreveport, Alexandria, and Monroe. One of these food distributors was Charles Pisciotto, a small family distributor, who drove a truck from New Orleans to north Louisiana and sold his wares from the back of the truck, going house to house to sell to the Sicilian families in each city.  
 Another company was the Uddo & Taormino Importers. Their office and warehouse was in the French Quarter at the corner of St. Ann and Chartres Street next door to Saint Louis Cathedral. They later expanded their products to grocery stores in the New Orleans area and throughout the state and their brands, Little King Pasta, Flag Brand Olive Oil, and Progresso brands still survive today and are still distributed under the Progresso Brand labels.  
 In Shreveport these foods were the basis of the early Sicilian food sources that led to the growth of corner stores, that also served hot lunches to working men in our city. Many were small corner grocery stores that served some basic homemade foods and later became restaurants: The Despot Family bought the Columbia Cafe on Market Street in 1927. Although the family was not of Sicilian descent they were an early forerunner of the following great restaurants:  
 Mr. Joe Brocato's Spring Street Restaurant. It was relocated and later moved to Kings Highway and called the Stopmoor Restaurant. Its menu featured steak and seafood, and the everlasting staple, spaghetti and meatballs. The location is still open as the Stone Fork Restaurant.  
Tony Sansone and Vito Cefalu opened Sansone’s also on Kings Highway. This fine dining establishment expanded the menu to include many gourmet Italian and French
Family photos
Ernest and Gladys Palmissano who came from New Orleans…worked downtown as a bartender at the Gardener Hotel. Later he opened up a place in a building called Le Chat Noir, The Black Cat, corner of Kings and Youree, corner to the west of there. They ran that business for several years then he moved to the riverfront and he opened up the Shreve Landing Club with Orlando Hawkins, his financial backer and then later they turned it in to Ernest’s Supper Club and the Stable Club which later became Dino's and Italian Restaurant that was owned by Anthony Maniscalco.  
There was The Florentine Club, a grand Victorian mansion owned by the J. V. Sclifo family, classiest restaurant in the city of Shreveport – candlelight dinners, white tablecloths, and two guys playing piano: Ferrante and Tiecher. That’s where they got their start, in Louisiana. Mr. Ferrante actually lived in Shreveport until about 1966 or ’65. He moved to Florida. They continued to tour, he and Teicher, both of them are now dead, but they started here in Shreveport on Austin Place.  
You had the Joe Dolce family; they owned the Picadilly Restaurant located on the corner of Snow Street and Louisiana right across the street from the Union Station, the Kansas City Southern Railroad. Upstairs was the Rio Hotel [laughter] …they had those cute girls out there, I remember…they used to deliver food down there too.  
Then you had Greco’s Restaurant, corner of Mansfield Road and Kings Highway. Mr. Greco later moved from there out to the lakefront, Cross Lake. He opened a place there called Greco’s and then it later became the Aid Station, it’s been through several different changes along there but Jimmy Rosso ran that for a while, Jimmy Sr.  
Also, near Kings Highway, you had right where the BioMedical Center is today, there was a drive-in CaliBurger – fifteen cent burgers. You know where the idea came from? Mr. Joe Tempa; he had been out in California, he had seen it, and he was actually the original McDonalds with the fifteen-cent burger!  
The Pedro Family opened a restaurant on Linwood Avenue and Wilkerson Street. Phillip Pedro and his son Sam were the proprietors. The building featured a basement Rathskeller bar that served drinks and had live entertainment.  
Charlie Rinaudo, the original Mirror Steakhouse, started right down the street here on the corner of Louisiana and Short Line – it’s called Fairfield now, part of Fairfield. Later he moved to the corner of Kings and Highland into a former movie theater that he renovated. A large glass etching done by a Shreveport artist by the name of Minor Vinck graced the dining room.  
 From there, moving on to some of the other families, my family owned a grocery store, it’s still there, on the corner of 1124 Fairfield, it used to be Powell Street, my grandfather started in 1927, my father took it over after the war in 1947 and my sister is still running it today, it’s the oldest family owned grocery, or business, in the city in that area.  

Memorabilia Table
After apprenticing in Baton Rouge at Leon's Italian Kitchen, the Village, and in New Orleans at Brennan's Restaurant, Joe and Mickey Fertitta opened, L'Italy Ristorante at 6301 Line Avenue in 1970...the name later changed to Fertitta's 6301 Restaurant, and in 2010 became the Anvil Restaurant Bar & Grill. Other restaurants opened by Joe Fertitta included, Central Station Restaurant and Railroad Museum, The Medical Corporation Food & Spirits, and The Huddle Club in Shreve Square. 
 The Cariere and Rosso families started Monjuni’s restaurant, their families both put out a lot of good food.  
Giuseppe Bruca came to Shreveport in 1976. All Sicilians. Where Ernest’s is today that was called Gambrinos. Vincent Campanella a cousin of Giuseppe, opened Firenze and Olive Street Bistro. That family, the Giacalone Brothers, now own Chianti and L’Italiano.  
The Cush family opened the Village on Louisiana Street in a quite intimate setting and operated there for many years.  
 Not to be left out of the Culinary scene, Bossier City, had the Spataro Family, they owned the studio Steakhouse, (you and I got thrown out of there before, cuz!), right there on East Texas St just east of the Kickapoo. Those of you who didn’t know the Kickapoo Motel, you could [bunk] for a dollar – it was great. If you couldn’t drive back home just go down there and see Sammy or CJ or Bubba and say I can’t drive they’d say go get a room, throw you in a bed, bunk and sleep it off and you could go home the next morning.  
 And you have Notini’s Restaurant on Airline. I can’t leave my family out, Peter’s. Although it was a grocery store, they make the best Italian sausage in the city.  
All of these were contributions made by the Sicilian families to this area and all of us have been around to enjoy it. I love your story about Sicily – I remember the first time I went there and the carpet rolled out…and I filled up on pasta and I shouldn’t have because there were nine courses after that.

Following the speeches by the panel, there was an extended question and answer period which soon dissolved into a general mingling and spontaneous family reunion by attendees.

Kelly Rich of Norla promises another event soon featuring the Greek heritage in Shreveport. Follow their Facebook page for updates on that.

A rather poor video of Joe Fertitta's speech is below; I apologize for the wobbly-ness of it and the sketchy sound. I was using my phone rather than video camera and was not prepared for how very cool this event was going to be. I wish the entire thing had been professionally recorded.

I would dearly love to see a repeat of this event, extended to more speakers, and I would love for some historian to capture the stories and priceless anecdotes of these families in a book. As we were reminded yesterday: one's heritage is something that must be nurtured and preserved.

If any of the families see this post and want to send me their stories, I'd love to compile them. My email address is in the sidebar or you can contact me through Joe, Jerry, or Mickey Fertitta.

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