By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine
Ever since we first ate margarine-sauced pompano at Lusco’s, in Greenwood, Mississippi, a quarter century ago, we’ve considered the cotton capital of the world a destination dining city. Waiters sidle through Sears catalog floral-print curtains into Lusco’s private back-room dining booths as the plaints of blues musicians float from the sound system. It’s all a little weird, and utterly compelling. For pompano, for cut-to-order steaks, for gumbo and garlic-charged Italian salads, this 72-year-old former grocery store on the wrong side of the tracks, run by a fourth generation of the Lusco family, earns the highest possible rank in the Roadfood pantheon. We like it so much that we’ve never bothered to look for any other interesting restaurants in Greenwood. However, on a recent trip revisiting Highway 61 south of Memphis, we discovered that Lusco’s is one of a trio of terrific restaurants in town, each of them family-run for decades, and each radiant with cotton-country character.
Before turning at the Crossroads onto Highway 49, we stopped in Clarksdale, crucible of the blues, to visit Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art—a store on old Delta Avenue that is a resource for everything you need to know about life in this part of Mississippi. Cat Head stocks hard-to-find recordings, local folk art, and roots-music publications, and it is an instigator of the annual Juke Joint Festival. While purchasing a CD by Son House and a biography of Ike Turner (both Clarksdale natives), we asked proprietor Roger Stolle where Michael should get a haircut. He directed us to Mamie’s Beauty Shop down the street, where our belief that barbershops are the best places to get dining tips was confirmed. As stylist Diane Robison snipped away, we were told that when we arrived in Greenwood, it was imperative that we go to The Crystal Grill and order coconut meringue pie.
First, we joined Stolle and his wife, Jennifer, for supper at their favorite dinner haunt in Clarksdale, Ramon’s. “I wouldn’t tell everyone to eat here,” Stolle said, pointing at the water-damaged acoustic ceiling tiles and explaining that local lore blames a lax landlord for the decomposition that makes the place a bona fide dump. Still, Thomas and Beverly Ely, the couple who run Ramon’s, valiantly create a pleasing milieu in the form of empty fifths of Jack Daniel’s and three-liter jugs of Taylor Chablis that have been made into decorative lamps, and they serve magnificent fried butterflied shrimp nearly as big as moon pies. “We were taking bets in the kitchen on if you all would be able to finish,” the waitress admitted when Michael, dispossessed of all appetite, left two of his dozen shrimp uneaten.
In Greenwood, we feasted on Lusco’s juice-heavy porterhouse sided by onion rings and french fries. The wood floors creak and the walls are a sickly faded green—Lusco’s is the same idiosyncratic wonder it has always been, but the city itself is undergoing a major makeover. Having suffered as King Cotton lost its economic primacy, Greenwood’s new engine of growth is the Viking Range Corporation, which opened its first production facility in town in 1989. Viking’s presence is huge, and the Mississippi Heritage Trust awards that it has won for rehabilitation of local properties include one for the transformation of the historic Irving Hotel from a ratty embarrassment into a stylish boutique hotel called The Alluvian. What we like about The Alluvian, beyond its feather beds and 350-thread-count sheets, is the adjoining restaurant, Giardina’s. It is new and modern, but Giardina’s (pronounced with a hard G) is also Greenwood history.
Opened in 1936, three years after Lusco’s (by a family that came from Cefalu, Italy, just like the Luscos), Giardina’s started as a grocery but soon became a restaurant. It echoed Lusco’s with a similar menu and curtained dining booths, the latter well suited for drinking bootleg liquor undercover. As Greenwood’s fortunes waned in the late 20th century, so did those of Giardina’s, but with the opening of The Alluvian it has been relocated and reborn. Today, Mary Rose Graham, a second-generation Giardina, will escort you to a private compartment where the table is topped with a thick white cloth and outfitted with Viking cutlery; the menu features steak and pompano, Delta hot tamales, and dishes that reflect the powerful influence of Italian immigrants on Greenwood’s cuisine. These include garlicky salads and a marvelous appetizer called Camille’s bread, which our waiter described as being “like a muffuletta but without the meat”—a hot loaf stuffed with olives, anchovies, and cheese.
The Crystal Grill is another of Greenwood’s old-time, family-run places, actually predating Lusco’s and Giardina’s. Years ago, it was known for a neon sign that glowed “Never Sleep.” Open from 4 A.M. until midnight, it hosted the locals for their predawn coffee klatsch as well as C&G Railroad men, who would stop their trains on the tracks just across the street for late-night supper. Breakfast is no longer served; at lunchtime, townsfolk flock here with the gusto of celebrators arriving at a church picnic. There are no private booths, but multiple expansions over the years have created a labyrinth of small dining rooms that can seat over 250 people in neighborly surroundings.
The menu is an eccentric spectrum of local treasures (peppery Delta tamales, Biloxi flounder, Hotland catfish) and such saccharine Dixie oddities as pink-velvet frozen salad (crushed pineapple, Cool Whip, cherry pie filling, and condensed milk) and a “fruit salad” that is canned pear halves topped with grated yellow cheese and mayonnaise. Proprietor John Ballas said that the recipe for his kitchen’s aromatic yeast rolls came from a friend’s mother who was a home-ec teacher at Greenwood High and that the spaghetti sauce is made from a recipe that his father obtained years ago by writing a letter to Heinz. Our favorite dishes on the menu are shrimp and crab Newburg, fried oysters, turnip greens, and sweet, sweet tea. And, of course, pie.
Annie Johnson started working here 27 years ago and has been the piemaker for the last 15. Her mile-high meringues are built on a fragile crust that she rolls out from lard-laced dough, the recipe for which she shared with us, using such measurements as “a big handful of baking powder” and “a little palm of salt.” She makes the meringue by adding her simple syrup in a way that causes the egg whites to “jump out of the pot and whoop to a peak.” Coconut pie and chocolate pie are always on the menu, and it is one of the great gastronomic joys of the Mississippi Delta to be in the front dining room during lunch and watch the breathtaking dome-topped beauties being carried out of the kitchen to a counter behind the register, where the cashier expertly severs them into wedges that are taller than they are wide.