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A Well-Dressed Guappo

Creole Cookin' with Chef Anthony Scanio Explores Italian Salad

Chef Anthony Scanio of Emeril's Delmonico reaches back through Arabi Spaghetti Dinners and Treme to arrive at his take on Italian Salad.


Growing up in Arabi, most church or playground fundraisers took the form of a Spaghetti Dinner. Because the church and ballpark were adjacent to one another, I can’t even distinguish in my memory what fundraiser belonged to which organization. Maybe the same families cooked for both the school and the playground, but I really don’t think that’s it. I’ve eaten enough Spaghetti Dinners over the course of my adulthood to know that they are all pretty much the same.


First, you start with your overcooked thin spaghetti. And it has to be overcooked and real mushy because that’s just way it is done. In fact, I was an adult before I realized there was any other way to cook or eat pasta. Next you ladle your smooth, sweet red gravy atop your macaroni (all pasta was called macaroni when I was a bambino). There’s probably a meatball as well, and finally you top everything with some cheese. The only question is, do you go with the green can of parmesan, or the red can of Romano? Even the grocery store brands followed the same color scheme.


On the same paper plate, or in a separate bowl if you’re the fastidious type, you have your salad, which is our real subject of interest here. If it’s the ‘70s of my childhood, it’s called a “wop salad” or if it is a Spaghetti Dinner of a more recent vintage it’s simply “Italian salad.” Whichever name it’s called, you’re getting the same thing—chopped iceberg lettuce topped with olive salad and more of the stuff from the green can.


On menus all over city and throughout the suburbs you can find our hero—the Italian salad—fancied up or not. Of course, restaurants such as Venezia’s or Vincent’s specialize in this New Orleans or Creole-Italian fare. Meanwhile, other beloved New Orleans institutions that survey a broader swath of Creole cuisine such as Mandina’s or Liuzza’s serve Italian salad next to gumbo and trout meuniere and shrimp remoulade. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Leah Chase includes an Italian salad recipe in her “Dooky Chase Cookbook.” Likewise if you drop in to Dooky Chase for lunch, it’s quite possible that you’ll see Italian salad offered on the buffet. This is perhaps testament to the fact that once upon a time Treme was home to a large Sicilian-American population. Louis Prima was from Treme. My grandfather peddled strawberries on the streets of Treme. My father grew up in the neighborhood. As a kid, I recall visiting the St. Ann Grotto on Ursulines St. where, in true Italian-American fashion, there’s a statue our family sponsored of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane with an angel.


At Delmonico we are very inclusive in our approach to Creole cuisine. We embrace the classic French-haute Creole, as well as the more humble but equally valid and delicious home-style Creole of our grandmothers. We explore the Spanish and Afro-Caribbean roots and influences of our cuisine. We look afresh at Creole-Italian cuisine, and in this vein we offer our guests a New Orleans “Guappo” salad.


A what, you say? “Guapo” in Spanish means handsome or elegant. In Spanish-dominated Southern Italy and Sicily, “Guappo” came to mean a sharp-dressed guy who was rather full of himself. When spoken by Southern Italians and Sicilians, however, the end vowel tended to be dropped and the beginning “G” sounded more like a “W.” Hence, there is your “wop”—never mind that “Without Papers” nonsense people have been passing along for years. Ironically enough, it has always been local Italian restaurants that have adopted the Wop salad moniker. A few holdouts such as Rocky and Carlo's continue to embrace the name “wop” despite its ethnic slur connotations. In fact, it is the Sicilian-American embrace of the slur that rendered it largely harmless. In essence, it belongs to us, we embrace it and it is thereby disarmed.


Yes, at Delmonico we offer our guests a New Orleans “Guappo” salad. And you, too, can offer your guests at home this wonderful salad. Just turn on a little Louis Prima—“Oh Mama, Zooma Zooma Baccala!” —and we’ll be on our way. First and most importantly, you must have a nice New Orleans olive salad. Of course, I know you have some in your ice box because you read my last column and dutifully made a batch. Oh, you ate it already? Didn’t get around to actually making any? No worries, I won’t hold it against you.


Next time you’re making groceries, just pick up a jar of olive salad. It won’t be as good as the one you could make at home, but it’ll do. Now, if you have a nice homemade olive salad you may want to chop it up a bit. Or maybe you don’t want to at all. (Home cooks, particularly novice cooks, always want exact quantities and directions. Chefs, on the other hand, are always saying, “a little bit of this, a little bit of that, make it however you want it.” In this case, I’m the chef and I’m saying that an Italian or Guappo salad is less an exact recipe and more of a theme with variations.)


One way or another, we have some olive salad chopped up or not. Now we need some lettuce. For pure retro thrills you could certainly use iceberg, but I believe we can do better. I like some torn heart of romaine leaves for structure and a bit of crisp texture. I also want a handful of beautiful arugula leaves. Their pepperiness will balance nicely with the tang and brine of the olive salad. Finally, I would love a bit of herbal sweetness, so we’ll tear a few fresh basil leaves and toss them in with the lettuces. It’s always a wonderful surprise in most any salad really to enjoy the pop of some fresh basil. So, let’s say we have about 3 cups of lettuces per salad. For that amount, fold in about half a cup of drained olive salad. If it’s chopped up, you may want a little less. Like I said, it’s up to you.


Next, we need a vinaigrette. Nothing too fancy. The olive salad is already going bring a lot of flavor and tang to your salad. Often, recipes suggest a three-to-one ratio between vinegar and oil. In this case that would be far too acidic. Four-to-one is better for our purposes. Let’s use a quarter cup of vinegar. Red or white wine vinegar are both acceptable. I prefer red for a Guappo. Distilled vinegar, however, is not acceptable regardless of what I said earlier about making it however you want it. About a teaspoon of dried oregano would be nice in our vinaigrette, as would about two teaspoons of fresh minced garlic. A little salt and pepper as you wish. Finally, whisk in about a cup of extra virgin olive oil. This isn’t an emulsified French vinaigrette. Instead the oil and vinegar are hanging out together, kind of intermingling, but never quite becoming homogenous.


We’re almost there. We have vinaigrette and olive salad tossed with lettuces. Now we need a few more “goodies” as we call them at the restaurant. A little cheese would be nice. No cans here. Parmesan is fine. Parmesan is always fine. But what is really nice in a Guappo salad is coarsely grated aged provolone. Not the mild, sliced provolone you put on a muffaletta, but a firm, slightly spicy version. Toss a little bit in the salad and then garnish with a few vegetable peeled curls on top. Another interesting cheese option would be ricotta salata. If you can find some nice tomatoes, feel free to throw those in your salad as well. Grape or cherry tomatoes are a good choice when our delicious Creole tomatoes are not available. A few slivers of sun dried tomato would also be fun.


Remember the Guappo salad is simply a theme with almost endless variations. Add anchovies if you like. Or a bit of artichoke. Poached shrimp will turn your salad into a light lunch. Grilled jumbo shrimp will turn your salad into a lunch entrée at Delmonico on Fridays. Julienned or diced salami is a fantastic addition. If you’re feeling flush, toss some jumbo lump crabmeat with a bit of the vinaigrette and put that atop your Guappo! Asparagus? Hard boiled eggs? Go for it. Roasted sweet peppers? Why not. 


Well, in a few paragraphs we’ve come a long way from ‘70s Arabi. Thank goodness. ‘70s Arabi is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Our New Orleans is a much more open, inclusive, welcoming place. Still , we can reach back into our past and examine something like a “wop” salad and maybe learn a little about ourselves. More importantly, we can make a glorious Guappo salad and enjoy with our friends and our family. 


Chef Anthony Scanio is chef de cuisine at Emeril's Delmonico. The views expressed in the article are opinion, and do not reflect the opinions of the NoDef editorial board.  

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