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Before Foodies, There was Solari’s BY RICHARD CAMPANELLA TULANE SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE THE YEARS 1863-1864 were not an opportune time to launch an import business in New Orleans, much less for fancy foods. War raged across the land; federal troops occupied the region; Union warships blockaded Southern ports; and few residents had the disposal income for edible niceties. Yet somehow, an insurance executive named Joseph B. Solari managed at this time to open a grocery specializing in fine imported foods. Solari was a new member of a small but prosperous antebellum commu- nity of Italian-born merchants who stewarded the trade of Sicilian fruits and delicacies between Mediterranean and Caribbean ports. By 1828, enough Ital- ians resided in the northern apogee of that trade circuit, New Orleans, to be- come a visible element of local society. Visitor Charles Sealsfield, for example, described the city’s diverse population as including “some Italians, amongst whom are several respectable houses” (commercial firms). Likewise, Edward Henry Durell, writing in 1835 under the penname Henry Didimus, noted the Italian merchants in the French Market vending “sundry heaps of West India fruit, [the] Italian’s staple in trade.” The 1860 census enumerated 893 Italian-born heads-of-households in New Orleans, implying a total Italian- or Sicilian-American population of roughly two thousand. Many, perhaps most, made their livelihoods in the city’s food industry. The Solari family, members of the professional class, first emigrated from Genoa in northern Italy to Iberville Parish in southern Louisiana in the late 1840s and eventually resettled in New Orleans. After Joseph B. Solari estab- lished the grocery in 1863 or 1864 (accounts vary), the patriarch shared op- erations of the enterprise with his sons Angelo and Joseph junior, while he himself became active in the Italian Benevolent Association. The two brothers made fine business partners. Angelo’s forte, according to a 1927 retrospective, was management and customer relations, whereas Joseph’s was “adventur[ing] into far countries…for all that was rare and fine in things to eat and drink.” Leveraging the sons’ compatible skills with their father’s tute- lage, and despite the economic malaise of the postbellum era, the Solari family conducted a bustling enterprise of “toothsome morsels” at their shop on Royal Street at the corner of St. Louis and, after an 1870 relocation, at 45 (now 229) Royal Street. A glimpse of their enterprise comes from an 1872 advertisement in the New Orleans Times, which extolled “ale, porter, biscuits, Cross & Blackwell pickles, Spanish olives, [and] Holland cheese” amid “an extensive and well selected stock of for- eign groceries and delicacies.” Two years later, the shop — by this time known as the A. M. and J. Solari Grocery Company — announced in the Daily Picayune the arrival of “500 cases of Italian macaroni and vermicelli, 100 cases of Swiss condensed milk,” and dozens of cases of Swiss, Roquefort, Parmesan and pineapple cheese. Such ads circulated regularly, and Solari’s grew in renown. Around this time, the company moved its operation to 4 St. Charles Avenue, but in 1877 returned to Royal at Customhouse (now Iberville), with a second location at 75 Camp Street near Poydras. Later that year, Solari’s became one of the first New Orleans businesses to adopt an exciting new technology. “In order to facilitate communication be- tween his store…and the one at 75 Camp Street,” reported the Daily Picayune in October 1877, Solari’s “has established a line of wires between the stores, and a telephone in each.” The experiment was a success, and orders of shipments were placed between the stores — perhaps New Orleans’ first-ever food delivery by phone. The family celebrated with a feast: “In honor of the christening[,] an elegant collation was spread. With that congeniality characteristic of the host, [Joseph] Solari extended the hospitalities of his store with the “laisser aller” of a man of the world, and entertained his guests in handsome style.” By the early 1880s, the Solari brothers prospered at their flagship Royal Street store and a new wholesale business at 22 Magazine. In June 1884, a fire ravaged the Royal location, “destroy[ing] one of the largest and most varied [food stocks] in the United States,” according to the Daily Picayune. Because the wholesale warehouse was separate, and possibly because of their father’s prior experience in the insurance industry, Solari’s promptly reopened in a rented space across the street, 102 Customhouse. The disaster opened an opportunity for expansion and improvement. In 1885, the family commissioned architect Thomas Sully to design a four-story corner LEFT: Solari’s on December 11, 1889, during the funeral march for Jefferson Davis. Courtesy Library of Congress ABOVE: Solari s on Royal corner Iberville in 1956. Courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection, Acc. No. 19184.108.40.2060. 14 PRESERVATION IN PRINT • www.prcno.org SEPTEMBER 2017