The Advocate Online

Published on 8/13/98     Archived on 8/13/98
Off the Menu
Years, friendliness flavor family-owned pizza restaurant

Special to FOOD

World War II had just ended, the GIs were coming home, and Baton Rouge was booming when Joseph Guercio and his wife, Annie Distefano Guercio, decided to buy a little cocktail lounge on the outskirts of town called the Fleur de Lis.

It was early 1947 when the husband-and-wife team took possession of their recently acquired property at 5655 Government St. near the Jefferson Highway intersection, then considered "out in the country." Their new business included a building with a bar and several "tourist cabins" scattered around the property.

The building had once also served as a service station and grocery, but the gas pumps and shelves were no longer there, and the last of the little cottages met its fate several years back.

However, two of the foundersí granddaughters, along with their parents and a brother, continue to operate the little restaurant that has built up a reputation for flavorful pizzas known for their thin crust, fresh red sauce and variety of toppings.

The Fleur de Lis is owned by a family corporation of five that includes Jo Smith and Pam Rushing, sisters who are granddaughters of Joe and Annie Guercio. The two sisters, along with Pam Rushingís husband, Murray Rushing, manage the place. Other owners are Holly Powell and Wayne Powell, the sistersí parents, and their brother, Wayne B. Powell, who lives in Brazoria, Texas. Smith and the Rushings are the day-to-day managers, and the Powells act in an advisory capacity.

Through the years diners have savored the hearty, freshly made pizzas served in the friendly atmosphere of this establishment that has remained almost unchanged for the past five decades. Annie Guercioís original recipe is still used to make the restaurantís unusual pizza that comes in two sizes and two shapes ó round or square. The smaller size is round, baked in a heavy aluminum pie pan, and the larger version comes out of the kitchen in the shape of a rectangle, as the result of the rectangular shape of the pan used.

"We make it all fresh every day," Jo Smith said of the pizza that features a crunchy crust from dough made each morning by Pat Sanford, one of the kitchen workers. The kitchen staff also makes about five gallons of red sauce every day to be used on the pizzas.

The sisters were reticent about the details of the their grandmotherís tomato sauce other than saying it contains "Italian seasonings."

"Itís part of the mystique of the place," Smith said.

The restaurantís most popular pizza, named "Round the World," is made of ground beef with Italian herbs and spices that the Fleur de Lis calls "Italian sausage." This pizza is also topped with anchovies, mushrooms, pepperoni, salami and onions. Other toppings include Canadian bacon, black or green olives, hot banana pepper, salami, shrimp and anchovy. A vegetarian version is available, too.

Open five days a week, the little restaurant can serve up to 5,000 pizzas a month, including the take-out orders, according to the managers. Hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

The small pizza is $4.95 and the large $7.95. The Round the World sells for $6.95 and $9.95. Partially baked pizzas are available for those who want to take them home and eat them later, and there is a special window for take-out orders.

The kitchen staff starts each pizza with a thin layer of the fresh, uncooked dough on a pizza pan, followed by a coating of the tomato sauce, which is then covered with the customerís toppings of choice. The pizzas are finished with separate sprinklings of ground Romano cheese and shredded Provolone. They are then run through a pizza oven on a conveyer belt for about six minutes at approximately 500 degrees. The sisters said this process "cooks the crust and browns the cheese without overcooking."

Pam Rushing said, "You get a good, crispy crust that way."

In addition to Sanford, the staff includes Annie Lee Polk, who has been with the restaurant for 33 years, and Isadore Williams, who began his association with the Guercio family at age 15 when Joseph and Annie still operated the Italian Gardens restaurant at 1101 Convention St. more than 50 years ago. Williams primarily attends to stock duties now.

David Brabham, a relative newcomer to the kitchen, is learning the Fleur de Lis method of making "Roman Pizza Pies." Kevin Rich-mond is bartender. The restaurant staff includes three servers at noon and five at night.

The two sisters arenít sure of the reason for the Fleur de Lisí square pizza, begun by their grandmother, but they have continued the tradition, even though the heavy duty aluminum pans have to be fabricated to order by a local foundry when replacements are needed.

As more old Baton Rouge buildings continue to be razed, the pink stucco building housing the Fleur de Lis has become a local landmark with its art deco architectural touches of glass brick, elliptical arches and rounded corners. The red neon lettering that has decorated the restaurantís front facade for decades announces "Cocktail Lounge," along with the fact that the place is "Air Conditioned."

The interior of the Fleur de Lis is cutting-edge 1940s. Dark, cool and inviting, the focal point of the dining area is a dark wooden bar with rounded ends. Mirrors line the far wall over the dark brown wainscoting, and neon signs advertising brands of beer add touches of color. The juke box offers selections of old favorites and country and Western, as well as music thatís difficult to categorize.

Although cocktails, wine and beer are available, the current owners have purposefully created a family atmosphere.

Jo Smith said they even decided against using video poker games after trying it for a year or so, considering it not quite appropriate. The room formerly used for video poker has been converted to another dining area.

Pam Rushing said, "When our mother came here in 1986, she really started concentrating on the family restaurant atmosphere. Our emphasis is on food. Our customers feel like theyíre at home when they come in here."

Aware of the publicís special feeling about the old restaurant, the owners have made an effort to retain the neighborly ambience of the establishment.

Smith said, "The way we feel about the place is not so much that weíre serving customers, but that weíre entertaining guests at our home."

Pam Rushing said customers frequently tell them of long-ago visits to the Fleur de Lis with their parents when they were young, and some people recall having their first date at the place or fondly recall celebrating a special event.

"The nostalgia value of the Fleur de Lis ó the look of the place ó is as important as keeping our pizza the same for the past 50 years," Smith said.

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