One of the things people who write about New Orleans love writing about most is “characters.” Not just anyone can be a character; you have to stand out from the crowd enough to be different, but if you go too far you’ll become an eccentric. The distinction is hard to pin down, but an important one. Probably the best way to explain it is that both characters and eccentrics are often described with the phrase “he’s always been that way,” accompanied with a fond smile for a character but with a heavy, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I sigh for an eccentrics. Eccentrics are worried about; characters are celebrated and stand an excellent chance of being immortalized as minor personages in novels.
Nino Buongiorno is a character. His name is Italian for “Nino Goodday,” or in a more relaxed translation “Nino Hello,” which would be interesting enough by itself. Fortunately for anyone who finds himself hungry in New Orleans, Nino is also an incredible cook. His Riverbend restaurant, Café Nino, is where I hope to go when I die (if I’ve been good enough). You can get pizza if you want, and it’s really really good, but to do so is to miss out on the magic of Nino’s. In general, Nino makes whatever he feels like that day, drawing from a repertoire of classic Italian dishes – your marsalas, your parmesans, and so on – perfectly executed. In a nod to the best ingredients of his adopted home, he also makes a catfish in shrimp sauce dish which may well have an actual name but which everyone calls “that catfish, my God, the really good catfish…” If you hesitate when ordering, Nino will choose for you, and he is always, always right. Lasagna is available as a side dish, which is possibly the best culinary development since the advent of the fork. Chianti is served in generous portions in Styrofoam cups; it’s cheap some days and free others. So go to Nino’s, eat, and then thank me, Nino, and the good Lord, in that order.
Bound and determined to have pizza? Check out this list of New Orleans’ best pizza parlors.