Even Rosario Damico’s Italian aunt says he doesn’t have to cook his sauces for hours, but he won’t budge on how he does it because of what he learned in his grandparents’ kitchen.
This is what his aunt in Palermo, Italy, recently told him during a trip there. But after she tasted a sample of his sauce, she just smiled and replied in Italian that was good. It was a sweet concession from her and especially in celebrating her 92nd birthday while there.
The Destrehan resident maintains that’s where the flavor comes from that has made his sauces a hit, and where they became a reality was Edible Enterprises, a business incubator in Norco.
This is where Sicily’s Finest Gourmet Foods – a line of pasta sauces – became a recipe for success in 2010.
After working more than 30 years in the hotel business and commuting to Baton Rouge, Damico decided it was time to do something else.
“I quit my job,” he said.
Damico acted on it. He met with Gay Sandoz, then with the incubator, and told her he wanted to make a pasta sauce and she suggested developing it as a product, which he did. He drew from his Palermo roots and produced the sauce.
When Sandoz tasted it, she agreed it was a go. She recommended he do shows to let customers “try and buy” the product and he agreed.
With 32 cases of sauce in hand, Damico went to a New Orleans show and he sold out.
He recalled a woman who came to his booth and declined to sample his sauce, saying she’d just returned from Italy. At Damico’s urging, she gave in and took a taste. She said nothing at first and then invited her friend, who also returned from the trip, to taste and they both ended up praising his sauce.
One of these women turned out to be Diane Breaux, owner of Breaux Mart Grocery Stores, who later got his sauce in three of her stores.
Then came the surprise at the show that fortified his determination to keep on going – he won the People’s Choice award recognizing his product.
Within a year, Damico took more of Sandoz’s advice to expand his product line that resulted in a fire roasted bell pepper sauce. It’s a great addition to a grilled cheese sandwich or to a shrimp dish.
“This is better than the first one,” he cooed about his latest recipe. Sandoz called it “unbelievable,” which he said was great on a pizza or eggplant Parmesan. Soon after came his third product – a tomato basil creole.
Now with three products, Damico went to festivals selling them and sales are growing.
At the Gulf Shores Shrimp Festival, he sold 32 cases of sauce, requiring he make a trip back to New Orleans to get more cases of them.
“It was our biggest show ever,” he said. “People were buying it by the case.”
Damico is already perfecting his spicy mayo sauce, which he says will be a good wing sauce.
“That’s very popular with the guys,” he said.
His “southern Italian” style is a sort of fusion creation with Italian flair that he makes uniquely with twists of taste, including his own seasoning mix he calls his “blackened seasoning blend.” He also highlights his recipes with a twist of brown sugar or sweet basil.
The key is fresh, slow-cooked sauces that keep the taste buds asking for more, Damico said. And they’re sauces that can become pasta dishes, as well as pizzas, soups and even the base of creole dishes.
His childhood was spent being schooled in food – and he loved it.
“Every Sunday, we were at my grandma’s house with the big spread,” he said. “Every Sunday, we have pasta. We had sauce every weekend. My mother worked for the Archdiocese managing the cafeterias, and dealt with all that.”
When he got a job offer in New York, even at 18, he went there and he kept the tradition with neighbors.
“Everyone knew I was cooking Italian and I’ve ha open house on Mondays,” Damico said. “They knew Rosario was cooking sauce on Saturday for Sunday.”
And, now, as he prepares to sell his sauce at the festival circuit – next weekend he’ll be at the Destrehan Plantation Fall Festival – and wants to grow his business, he still likes being a small business because he wants to keep the quality in his food.
He’s also still beaming over his Italian aunt wanting to know when he’s coming back to Italy to make her some more of his slow-cooked sauce.
“You can’t just throw everything in a pot,” Damico said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”