The summer of 2005 was a time of celebration for Angelo Broacato’s, the family-owned Italian bakery and ice cream shop that is a tradition in New Orleans.
And then came the flood waters following the failure of the federal levees after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. Approximately four feet water heavily damaged their parlor and bakery on N. Carrollton Avenue in Mid-City.
In the months following, there was talk that the venerable family business might be permanently shuttered.
“I heard those rumors and hoped it wasn’t true,” recalls Poppy Tooker, a noted culinary historian, educator and radio show host of “Louisiana Eats,” which airs weekly on WWNO, the local National Public Radio (NPR) station. Tooker knew all too well how precious the business was to the local culinary landscape, and how important the business was in terms of passing a business down through generations.
And then while grocery shopping at a local grocery store, Tooker spotted bags of Brocato’s cucidati, the Italian cookie the Brocato’s made daily in their shop’s kitchen. The cookie, originating in Sicily, consists of tender sweet dough wrapped around a flavorful fig filling, and in the Brocato’s case dotted with colorful sprinkles. Tooker purchased every bag left on the shelf.
“I thought I might be buying the very last of this great family’s story,” she said. “It hurt my heart to think that another great New Orleans culinary tradition might be coming to an end because of that awful storm and the flooding that followed.”
The history of the very popular Angelo Brocato Original Italian Parlor’s history is steeped in the Sicilian traditions that trace back to the capital city of Palermo at the end of the 19th century. It was there that a 12-year old Angelo Brocato began his apprenticeship in one of the city’s most elegant ice cream parlors, learning the special recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. The calendar drove the young apprentice’s education, baking Sicilian goods until Easter and cold confections through the summer months. It was a time when gelato was made in barrels and poured into loaf-shaped molds, and sliced for serving, as the torronccino, a vanilla-based ice cream flavored with cinnamon and almonds, still is. And perhaps most importantly, he learned the necessary techniques to make the famous cannoli Siciliana.
As a young man Brocato immigrated to Louisiana, first working in the sugar cane fields of Donaldsonville, eventually moving with his wife and son to Little Palermo an enclave of Sicilian immigrants living in the lower French Quarter known as Little Palermo. There he opened a tiny ice cream parlor, and continued baking and creating Italian sweet treats in the Sicilian tradition. He made gelato, the rich, dense custard-based ice cream; cassata cake filled with ricotta cheese and iced with marzipan; totra della nonna, lemon-filled “grandmother” cake. He candied fruits and churned ice cream by hand, producing new flavors for his fellow Italian residents. And of course he made cannoli.
The original Brocato’s prospered, eventually moving to a larger shop on Ursulines Street in 1921 in a space that more resembled the tiled parlor its owner recalled in Sicily, complete with gas lamps and sawdust on the floor.
After their father died in 1946, Angelo Jr. and Jo Brocato, two of six brothers, took over the business with their mother, maintaining their father’s principles. As the French Quarter grew less residential, the customer base decreased. Realizing they would have to bring their products to the customer, the Brocato brothers introduced wholesale delivery to grocers, restaurants and specialty stores. And in the 1970s, the third generation was officially brought into the family business, including Arthur and his wife, Jolie, who remain at the helm.
After almost 80 years in the French Quarter, and having to adapt to the changing demographics in the French Quarter, as more and more people were moving to the suburbs or the newly-developed parts of New Orleans toward the northern part of the city, the Brocato’s moved the store to Mid-City. Though the setting was new, the family kept much of the old world charm: ceiling fans, rows of apothecary jars filled with colorful goodies, glass-topped tables, and the big copper and brass cappuccino machine reflect an era of Angelo Sr. when the Sicilian parlor flourished.
But the business’s future was very much in doubt in the months after Hurricane Katrina. Katrina pushed over five feet of water into the area, washing through the front of the house, and through the kitchens and operations area. The store was badly damaged, the freezers and ovens decaying by the day. As the Brocatos recalled, large refrigerators were overturned, their contents spilling out and rotting in the subsequent heat. Chairs and table in the front parlor were scattered throughout and display cases were battered by the flood waters. The Brocato family had evacuated to the Houston area and long-time employees were scattered as well.
Tooker thought of a way to help the business get its doors open again. She brought the Brocato’s plight to the attention of the people managing Slow Food USA”s Terra Madre Katrina Relief Fund in collaboration with Richard McCarthy, then the director of the Cresent City Farmers Market (CCFM). The fund’s goal was to help restore local agriculture heritage that was damaged by Katrina, and $30,000 in grants were divided among 12 of the fishermen, farmers and restaurateurs who were a part of the CCFM.
With help from the grant, and the sweat equity of family and friends, the Brocato’s restored the shop and bakery to working order a little over a year after the hurricane. On September 23, 2006, they were back in the business of cannolis, cucidatis, Italian cookies and gelato. Most of the displaced employees returned as did the customers. The store’s reopening brought an outpouring of relief and euphoria. On the shop’s first day back in business, for which a band was hired, people drove from miles and stood for three hours in a line that stretched far around the block.
“You just get so excited when you see somebody going to all this effort to reopen,” said Linda Jackson, who lives near the University of New Orleans. She has been thrilled to find each of the few open businesses near her home, she said. “To see the brave individuals who are making all this possible is just a shot in the arm.” Even five days later, on a midweek afternoon, customers lined the inside of the prim, old-fashioned parlor.
Ten years later, and the Brocato’s treats are as much a tradition in New Orleans as coffee and beignets. A recent Sunday afternoon found every table in the store filled with customers from toddlers to seniors. A couple waiting to be served said they visit Brocato’s every Sunday afternoon, sipping coffee and eating one of the many assorted seed cakes or biscottis made fresh daily. A small bag filled with a container of frozen chocolate gelato will leave with them, as it does each week, so they can enjoy a little Brocato’s each evening. Cannolis are filled as they are ordered, to be enjoyed as crisp as possible. Ice cream is made 10-gallon batches at a time, and only fresh fruits, local if possible, are used to make the ices. Some ingredients for gelatos are imported from Italy and all the cookies are still made by hand.
“We made it back with the help of good friends and our family,” says Mrs. Brocato. “It is all we have ever known. It’s what we do.”
What pleases Arthur Brocato the most?
“I like watching people walk out carrying a box of cannolis, a touch of Sicilian tradition in a Brocato’s box,” he said. “But what I most enjoy is seeing the younger people who come to the store, and having an appreciation for what we offer. It signals a future, and a belief that the experience of coming to Brocato’s will continue to the next generations. It’s an appreciation for the old things.”