Red Stick Red Sauce: Spaghetti and Meatballs in Baton Rouge
by Jay D. Ducote
Baton Rouge may not be well known for its Italian food. The capital city is more renowned for its Cajun influences, seafood, and its Greek and Lebanese scene than it is for true Italian. Sure, you can find some great locally owned pizza joints, but they don’t quite do the trick when you are really after the perfect plate of Italian red sauce. However, it doesn’t take too much searching around before you find some local chefs that really know their pastas. Indeed, the quintessential Italian dish to try before all else is spaghetti and meatballs. If you find an Italian restaurant that makes a satisfactory tomato sauce, or “red gravy”, and an equally delicious seasoned meatball, chances are you’ll like the rest of their menu as well. If the spaghetti and meatballs fall short of your expectations, then heed the warning that you may not enjoy the lasagna or eggplant parmesan either.
Baton Rouge’s long standing icon of Italian cuisine is Gino’s Restaurant. The establishment is hidden off of College Drive but everybody who knows food in Baton Rouge knows exactly where to find it. They have often been voted by multiple polls and publications as the best Italian food in the city, so I thought it would be only natural to start there for some meatballs.
My trip to Gino’s involved a dinner to celebrate my birthday. My brother Eric, sister Dana, father Jere, and his significant other Donna came along with me to indulge in the rich Italian sauces. Everybody ordered their own thing, but I made certain to put in an order of spaghetti and meatballs as an appetizer for the table to share. Gino Marino, the proprietor, chatted with me about the restaurant and the meatballs for a few minutes. The meatballs themselves are the same recipe that dates back over 40 years and are still hand rolled by Grace “Mama” Marino. Vincent and Grace Marino came to the United States from Sicily with their children in 1951. The restaurant was first established on Perkins Road in 1966 but moved to its current Bennington Avenue location in 1975. To this day, Gino’s is still 100% family owned and operated which is something that I really like when seeking out a restaurant.
|Spaghetti and Meatballs at Gino's|
The dimly lit dining room provided a lovely atmosphere for an evening of edible enjoyment. We soon had salads, some wine, and a couple loaves of the famous Laurence Bread as we waited on the meatballs. Gino’s red sauce is a slightly sweet marinara that tastes great while not overpowering the dish like some sweeter sauces can do. The spaghetti had an ideal noodle texture for meatballs. Sometimes I like an al dente noodle, but with meatballs thoroughly cooked pasta is preferable. Finally, the meatball itself had excellent flavor and one could tell it had been crafted with love by Mama Marino. All of the main ingredients combined masterfully on the plate to create a dish that made we want to sample more of Gino’s cuisine. The spaghetti and meatballs easily passed my “first course at an Italian restaurant” test.
|Maggio's Delicatessen and Catering|
Switching gears from Gino’s, I tried to find a new Italian spot that also did things the right way. Baton Rouge has a handful of good, local, established restaurants with Italian dishes such as Pinetta’s, DiGiulio Brothers, Monjuni’s, and Ruffino’s; but I wanted to get off the beaten path. On Old Hammond Highway I found Chef and Restaurateur Mark Maggio at his newly opened Maggio’s Delicatessen and Catering. Mark is no stranger to the Baton Rouge food scene. He used to own and operate Maggio’s Restaurante downtown where Christina’s now serves breakfasts and lunches. His new venture, which is only about 12-13 weeks old as of October 1, 2010, is a throwback to his family history. Mark’s grandparents were born in Sicily and he learned his culinary ways from his mother as she made Sicilian “meatballs and gravy” during his formative years.
|Mark and Jay at Maggio's|
Maggio’s Delicatessen and Catering serves food out of a renovated house. The entrance leads you into a room with a deli counter where you can get some Italian staples like lasagna, chicken parmesan, Italian sausages, and more to go. If you’re eating in, Maggio’s has a few dining areas that are set up in rooms of the old house. Space is limited, but that only adds to the atmosphere. You can easily forget you are dining in restaurant and instead escape the hustle and bustle with the sensation that you are eating home-cooked authentic Italian food right there at someone’s home. In fact, the kitchen is a far cry from most commercial kitchens in modern restaurants since they cook on residential ranges; but that certainly takes nothing way from the output quality.
|Jean prepares the red gravy at Maggio's|
As Mark and I discussed his restaurant, he seemed excited that I chose to write this article on spaghetti and meatballs. He commented, “Your first trip to an Italian restaurant should always include meatballs and gravy.” He agreed with me on the notion that you can tell everything you need to know by the meatballs and red sauce, so I anxiously anticipated tasting Maggio’s version of the classic dish. Mark went on to describe what sets his meatballs apart from others. His all beef meatballs are actually made out of ground steak trimmings from the Ready Portion Meat Company right here in Baton Rouge. The high-quality ground steak is in excess of the standard 80/20 ground beef to fat ratio. Added to the ground steak are breadcrumbs, onions, a little cheese, and some other ingredients that Mark didn’t want to let me in on. I can’t blame him!
Mark’s tomato gravy also uses superior products to deliver a delicious sauce. His gravy begins with tomato paste that comes from Stanislaus Food Products. Stanislaus uses fresh-packed California tomatoes that are canned on the line. The paste distinctly differs from the tomato concentrate that most pastes use. Once Mark gets the fresh packed tomato paste, he cooks it exactly the same way every time to create his red gravy in a consistent manner.
|Meatballs and Spaghetti at Maggio's Delicatessen and Catering|
Gino’s and Maggio’s both do spaghetti and meatballs right. They start with quality ingredients and they take the time to carefully hand craft the meatballs. Their tomato sauces differ, but both still reflect the Sicilian roots of their owner’s culinary heritage. While Baton Rouge may not ever be known for Italian cuisine like other cities in America, citizens of the Red Stick can rest assured that they can find some delicious and authentic food from “the boot” across the pond if they know where to look!
Jay D. Ducote is the author of the blog Bite and Booze, which chronicles his culinary and indulgent cultural experiences around Baton Rouge, South Louisiana, and the world. It can be found at www.biteandbooze.com. You can also reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, like the Bite and Booze fan page on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter @biteandbooze. Thanks to Eric Ducote of BRBeerScene.com for taking all the pictures for this article.