New Orleans is a melting pot of many different cultures. The city was founded by the French in 1718, and ceded to the Spanish who ruled it for almost 40 years before being purchased by the United States in 1803 (Stewart et al.). Along with the French and Spanish, enslaved Africans were brought to the city. Diversity increased even more in the 19th century when other European immigrants poured into the city.
The mixing of all these different cultures will later give birth to the unique Creole culture that distinguishes New Orleans. One of these cultures that never gets too much credit is the Italian one. In fact, it is not widely known that Italian immigrants played an important role in shaping the culture of the city of New Orleans. In particular, they enriched the city’s culinary culture and contributed to the development of New Orleans native music, the Jazz.
Evidence shows that Italians were present in Louisiana since the very beginning. Enrico Tonti was an Italian serving in the French army and, with La Salle, he is credited for the discovery of Louisiana (Pietro Vitelli). According to Vitelli “There is nary a mention [of him] in the official histories”. Just a street in New Orleans takes his name. Italians were among the first settlers and continued to migrate into colonial Louisiana throughout the 19th century. By 1850, they were the largest Italian population in the whole country, [before New York and Chicago] (Gaudin).
These early Italian migrations consisted of skilled workers mostly from northern Italy, and according to Magnaghi “their contribution has been generally neglected by historians.” After the Civil War, Louisiana was in need of laborers and a massive influx of Sicilians fleeing poverty came to New Orleans to fill this need. Some of them worked at the docks along with African-Americans. Others worked for sugar cane planters trying to save up enough money to open their own businesses or buy their own land. A lot of Sicilians moved into the decaying apartments of the lower French quarter that became locally known as “little Palermo” (Diana C. Monteleone). Joseph Maselli notes that “By 1910,… the city’s French Quarter was 80 percent Sicilian”(13). “Here was a neighborhood that was founded and named after the French, that exhibited the architecture of Spain, but which was filled with the faces and voices of Sicily” (M.Scott).
Sicilians had a big impact on the history of food in New Orleans. From laborers, they eventually were able to open their own corner grocery stores, sell their produce at the French market, and open cafes and bakeries around the city. Soon, the Italians were fully involved in the “food-distribution empire” of the city (Nystrom). Among them were farmers, wholesalers, fruit dealers, import-export business leaders, and store owners. “The French Market consisted primarily of Italian merchants from 1880 until 1850”(Maselli, 23).
The businesses that flourished during the “little Palermo” era contributed to the enrichment of the food scene in New Orleans. Many businesses were successful, and are still operating today. Among the most well-known are Central Grocery, The Roman Candy Cart, Angelo Brocato, and Progresso foods.
Central Grocery is a small Italian store known for inventing New Orleans’ famous Muffuletta sandwich, and it is now a tourist attraction. According to an article on the New Orleans Advocate Salvatore Lupo opened the store in 1906, near the French market. The store had a deli section where it sold freshly baked muffuletta bread (a Sicilian popular type of bread), cold cuts, cheeses, and olives. Italian truck farmers would come into town to bring their produce to sell at the market and, on their way home, they would stop at the store to have lunch. The rush to get back on the road made the owner come up with a to-go solution. He grabbed the muffuletta bread (which the sandwich gets its name from) and stuffed with cold cuts, cheeses, and olive salad. The store was passed on to the grandson who still sells the original Muffuletta.
Another business started by a Sicilian immigrant is the Roman Candy Cart. According to Murphy, it was established in 1915 by Sam Cortese selling strawberry, vanilla and chocolate taffy for five cents a stick. It first started with 12-year-old Sam who sold fruits and vegetables from a goat-drawn cart. Sometimes he would bring leftover taffy candies that his mom had made to sell on the cart. The candy was such a success that he began selling it on a regular basis, and it never stopped. After his death, the business passed on to his Grandson that still operates it today (88).
Angelo Brocato, named after the founder, is a well-known Italian-stye gelato and pastry shop famous for his Sicilian cannoli. The shop is now in Mid-city, but the original one first opened in the French Quarter in 1905 (Murphy and Asher,5). After learning the profession in a fancy gelato shop in Palermo, Angelo emigrated to New Orleans and worked in a sugarcane plantation. When he finally had enough money saved up, he opened his own shop modeling the one he had worked for. The shop is now run by his grandson, Angelo Brocato III (Murphy and Asher. 5).
Progresso Foods is a canned Italian-style food company and was founded in New Orleans by Giuseppe Uddo. Young Giuseppe was a food peddler back in Sicily. In 1907, he and his wife decided to move to United States for a better life (Denker). After a difficult time, he began making tomato sauce and canned it to sell it to fellow Italians. The business grew and he expanded by purchasing a warehouse and opening a grocery store. He later opened in California the first canned tomato paste factory in the Country (Grayson). Progresso expanded its market and began selling canned soups, beans, and vegetables. It was the first company in America to deliver ready-to-eat soups (Denker). Soon the brand was sold all over the US. The company was sold to General Mills after Uddo’s death (Denker).
Today there is not much left of what once was known as the “little Palermo”. Just a touristy corner store and a few restaurants. However, Italian-Americans still “maintain a high profile in the New Orleans food industry by operating restaurants and bakeries” (Monteleone).
Italian immigrants in New Orleans were not just about food. They also influenced the city’s music scene. Sicilian saxophonist, Francesco Cafiso, in an interview states that “The Sicilians have made a great contribution so that this genre [the jazz] could be born and evolve,”(qtd.in De Stefano). They brought their talent and classical influence from the motherland and shared it with the locals. They formed successful jazz bands and took the Jazz of New Orleans outside Louisiana making it famous worldwide. ”Many jazz critics often overlook the contributions that Italians have made to jazz, even though Italian American musicians have been major players in EVERY jazz genre…” (Del Cerro). Among the New Orleans-Italian Jazz players that made a difference in the world of Jazz are three Sicilians: Nick LaRocca, Leon Roppolo, and Louis Prima.
New Orleans is where Jazz was born. When exactly is still unknown, but we know that it evolved over a long period of time from a mixture of sounds of the many cultures that populated New Orleans at that time. The sound of Jazz initially sprouts in African-American and Creole communities. In the city, poor people of different backgrounds lived in the same neighborhoods facilitating cultural exchange (Jack Stewart et al.).
Sicilians and African-Americans worked and lived alongside sharing their forms of music with each other (Jovina Coughlin). As critic George De Stefano points out “[Sicilians] didn’t simply imitate…in the early days of jazz influence was a two-way street: Sicilian musicians learned the syncopated rhythms [of Blues and Ragetime] from African-Americans, while black players absorbed popular Italian melodies [and classical lines] like the lyric Italian trumpet sound.”Many of these early Jazz musicians were poor and uneducated and didn’t know how to read music, so they played by ear improvising. This was a completely new and exciting way to make music, different from the music of that time.
De Stefano notes that “Sicilians were the main European nationality group to adopt and perform [Jazz].” They formed their own bands, blending their rich European musical heritage with the rhythms and improvisation of the Jazz, and that was the key to their success. Many of the early Sicilian immigrants were hired as musicians by the French Opera House (Jovina Coughlin). Their sons would soon mark the history of Jazz taking it from a regional phenomenon to international popularity.
One such artist was cornetist and trumpeter Nick LaRocca. He started playing with the Papa Laine’s Reliance Brass Band in New Orleans and then became the leader of the Dixieland Jass Band in 1914 (“Dominik La Rocca”). The band moved to New York where they had an immediate success. They were the first white band to introduce New Orleans Jazz to the north (Nakamura, 24), and the first Jazz band to ever be recorded, selling over one million copies (“Dominik La Rocca”). The fame took them to tour England for over a year. According to an article on redhotjazz.com “The release of their record signed the beginning of the Jazz age”(“Original Dixieland J. B.”).
Another Sicilian artist was the talented clarinetist Leon Roppolo. At a young age, he joined the New Orleans Rhythm Kings that later became one of the most popular jazz bands in Chicago in the 1920s (“Leon Roppolo”, Wikipedia). He is considered to be the first one to ever record a jazz solo (“Leon Roppolo”, Red Hot J.A.). His career only lasted ten years, but his talent gained him an international reputation (Nakamura,33).
Another important figure in the history of Jazz is Louis Prima. Born and raised in the Treme, a predominantly African-American neighborhood, he picked up the music and the attitude of black musicians (The Ponderosa S.F.). He was a trumpeter, composer, and showman with a great sense of humor. His talent was discovered and brought to New York where his successful career began.
He put together a big band and composed some iconic jazz songs still famous today. He was the first Italian-American performer that was not afraid to show his origins including Italian songs into his work (Raeburn). In 1968, Disney created a character inspired by Prima (Raeburn), the orangutan King Louie of “The Jungle Book”, and used his signature voice for the song “I wanna be like you”( The Ponderosa S.F.). Prima is known as the “King of Swing”.
All these great talents inspired many other talented musicians and played an important role in the development/ history of jazz. Del Cerro underlines that ”Many jazz critics often overlook the contributions that Italians have made to jazz, even though Italian American musicians have been major players in EVERY jazz genre…” Unfortunately, many of them remain largely unacknowledged. The city of New Orleans tributes many of its music legends, but of these Sicilian jazz players, there is no trace.
Italians didn’t leave a visible imprint like the French and the Spanish did, leaving behind a city filled with French names and Spanish architecture still visible today. Italians never ruled New Orleans, but they were always there since the discovery of Louisiana. Although you never hear nor read too much about them, they inevitably were an important piece to the puzzle in creating the unique city that we know today…## in contributing to creating the unique city we know today. As journalist Mark Deane states “New Orleans was never the same after the Italians arrived.”