1905: Brocato’s opens in New Orleans — and it’s amore
In the summer of 1905, a Sicilian immigrant named Angelo Brocato Sr. opened his first ice-cream parlor on Decatur Street, just off Ursulines, in the part of the Vieux Carré known at the time as Little Palermo. Brocato, who had started his career as a 12-year-old apprentice in an elegant ice-cream parlor in the real Palermo, turned out such then-exotic hot-weather treats as granita al limon, known today as lemon ice; torroncino, a vanilla-based gelato with cinnamon and ground almonds; and, of course, cannoli, which consists of pastry dough rolled into a loose cylinder and packed with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta. The business caught on, and he moved to bigger quarters, first to the 500 block of Ursulines and, in 1921, to 615-17 Ursulines St., where the business stayed until 1981.
Brocato’s has been at 214 N. Carrollton Ave. since the move from the Quarter, but its tenure there hasn’t been uninterrupted. Less than two months after the business celebrated its centennial, the shop took on 5 feet of water when the levees failed as Hurricane Katrina assaulted the city on Aug. 29, 2005. The store reopened, with great fanfare, on Sept. 23, 2006, and has been dishing up Italian treats ever since.
- The family-owned business is run by the third generation of Brocatos.
- In 2007, the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University gave Brocato’s staff and owners its Lafcadio Hearn Award, which “honors individuals who have had a long-term, positive influence on Louisiana and U.S. cuisine and culture.”
- The shop at 615-17 Ursulines St. used to employ car hops to take orders from people parked in their cars from Ursulines around the corner to Chartres Street, Arthur Brocato said in a Southern Foodways Alliance oral-history interview. That stopped during World War II.
- The first Angelo Brocato served his ice-cream apprenticeship in Sicily before mechanized ice-cream makers, and even before hand-cranked machines. Gelato was made in barrels then, and long knives were used to scrape and mix the cream as it froze. The gelato was poured into loaf-shaped molds and sliced for serving.
- In post-Katrina New Orleans, every reopening was cause for celebration. When Brocato’s reopened nearly 13 months after the storm, in a neighborhood that still bore the scars of the storm and flooding, the line snaked down the block, with customers being entertained by Bobby Lonero and Benny Grunch and the Bunch.
- When the shop left the French Quarter, it was following the population. That part of the Vieux Carré was then becoming less residential as families moved to the suburbs.
- Here’s the difference between gelato, which Angelo Brocato’s sells, and ice cream: Gelato is made with a custard-based mixture with less milk fat than American ice cream. It also is churned very slowly; consequently, it has less air, and the product is dense and has a distinctive flavor.
- The Brocato’s website explains why American customers have a hard time — literally — biting into biscotti and other Italian cookies: Those cookies are designed for dipping into wine or coffee. Also, as a bit of lagniappe, the nuts and preserved fruit baked into the cookies extended their shelf lives in the days before refrigeration was widely available.
In a city that can be tough on culinary newcomers, Angelo Brocato and his family have shown not only determination but also consistency in turning out products that people are willing to stand in line for. Brocato created a demand for the treats of his homeland, and customers have been loyal. An example of that devotion was shown in the pilot for the HBO series “Treme,” which was set in the city three months after Hurricane Katrina struck. In that episode, Creighton Burnette (played by John Goodman) declines an offer of lemon ice from another establishment, saying it would be disloyal to do so while Brocato’s was still closed. In the first episode of the second season, he and his family are shown at the reopened ice-cream parlor, chatting with Angelo Brocato III. Just like old times.