Though I've had more than my fair share of oysters Mosca and chicken grande at Mosca's, the justifiably famous Creole Italian restaurant just outside New Orleans, I'd never really thought of the American South as having much in the way of an Italian restaurant tradition. But in the last two days I've eaten two terrific and totally different Italian meals in Mississippi that were each in their own way absolutely true to themselves and the towns they are situated in.
L&M's Kitchen and Salumeria is the brainchild of Dan Latham, a native Mississippian and Ole Miss and French Culinary Institute grad who cooked and made salumi at Otto, Babbo, and Pó, Mario Batali's restaurants in New York City's Greenwich Village.
Latham opened L&M in a simple, pretty space on Oxford's historic town square in 2004. The namesake salumi are extraordinary, every bit as good if not better than the fine salumi still being made at Otto or Salumi, Armandino Batali's postage stamp-sized sandwich shop in Seattle. The hot and sweet salamis and the guanciale, cured pork jowl, were all perfectly seasoned, marvelously porky, and had a lovely meat-to-fat ratio. They're all made from local Tamworth pigs raised by a farmer named Stan. The grilled flank steak with charred local chilies and chile oil was very tasty but could have used a better sear and crust. Lafayette County tomatoes served with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and basil pesto were sweet and juicy. For dessert, we ordered the herbed homemade ricotta cheese brushed with local honey spread on toasted bread, an appropriate and truly southern Italian end to a fine meal in the South.
My southern Italian meal at Lusco's in Greenwood, deep in the Mississippi Delta, was as singular a restaurant-going experience as I've had in recent memory. Lusco's is unlike any other restaurant I have ever been to. It is to the Delta what Peter Luger Steakhouse is to New York City, a perfectly preserved restaurant rooted to its location in more ways than I can adequately describe. Located on a rundown side street of Greenwood, a Delta town almost singlehandedly revived by the Viking Range Company and its founder Fred Carl, Lusco's began as a combination grocery store and restaurant in its current location in 1933. It's not really a restaurant with a conventional dining room. Rather, it's a series of privately partitioned green-slatted booths fronted by the remnants of the grocery store. During Prohibition these booths were where Greenwood's most powerful citizens took their mistresses to drink and make whoopie.
Our meal made good use of the kitchen's salamander broiler. We had fine broiled shrimp with Lusco's shrimp sauce, fresh, minimally sauced whole pompano topped with butter chunks of fresh crab, spinach soufflé, and onion rings that I wished had stayed in the fryer a little longer. One of my tablemates ordered a steak, a filet mignon actually, another one of the Lusco specialties. It looked quite good, but I was so into my pompano that by the time I asked him for a bite (for research purposes of course), it was gone. The food was all simple and carefully prepared. There's no need for the kitchen to overreach at Lusco's, and the restaurant's current owners, Karen and Andy Pinkston, understand that.
Other singular touches include a buzzer in each booth that you press to summon your waitress, signs asking patrons not to flip their butter to the ceiling as many generations of Lusco's customers have customarily done (in the summer those pats of butter apparently ruined many a woman's beautiful dress when they began to melt), and a men's room that is located outside. It's not an outhouse, just a unique bit of outdoor plumbing.
For a slice of the modern American South rooted to lovely Oxford, Mississippi, head to L&M's. To enjoy a restaurant experience unlike any other, head to Lusco's.
L&M's Kitchen and Salumeria
Address: 309c North Lamar Street, Oxford MI 38655
Address: 722 Carrolton Avenue, Greenwood MS 38930