NEW ORLEANS — Marilyn Monroe famously sang that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but the precious stones never had a bigger supporter than “Diamond Jim” Moran.
To the flamboyant New Orleans restaurateur and raconteur, diamonds were a sign of success. It’s the reason he wore them not just on his fingers but in his teeth, eyeglasses, neckties, zipper, belt buckles, shoelaces, cufflinks, cane – even his toupee. Today, we’d call him the king of bling.
New York may have had Diamond Jim Brady, known for his big carats and even bigger appetite, but our Diamond Jim loved showing off his glittering gems so much, he hid diamonds in his restaurant’s meatballs as a marketing gimmick.
A French Quarter icon from the 1930s through the 1950s, Moran was restaurant royalty. A new book by Bobby Brocato Jr., Diamond Jim’s grandson, is titled “Food for Kings: Diamond Jim – A New Orleans Legend.” It’s part family album, part cookbook and, as Brocato calls it, a non-fiction novel, featuring stories handed down through generations.
The title comes from the name of Moran’s original restaurant at 809 St. Louis Street: Jimmy Moran’s Food for Kings. The owner had nothing close to royal lineage. Born James Brocato in 1895, he was the son of Italian immigrants who, like many others, settled in the French Quarter near the turn of the 20th century. His father Nunzio died of yellow fever when James was just seven.
The young boy shined shoes and took up boxing to make extra money. Family legend says he borrowed the surname of a fellow fighter, Pal Moran (who it turns out was also an Italian boxing under an Irish name), so that Brocato’s mother Maria wouldn’t know about his exploits. The name would stay with him for life.
In the 1920s, Moran opened a French Quarter barber shop. He befriended Robert Maestri, the Italian-American mayor of New Orleans, and Gov. Huey P. Long. In the book, Brocato writes that his grandfather was a bodyguard for Long, cooked for him and was in his entourage at the State Capitol when Long was assassinated in 1935.
During Prohibition, Moran opened a speakeasy on Common Street. In 1930, federal agents raided the club and arrested him for selling liquor. He served time in an Atlanta prison.
It wasn’t his only brush with the law, or with those who skirted it. Moran made money in the slot machine business and became friends with mob figures Al Capone, Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, Dandy Phil Kastel and Carlos Marcello. In his book, Brocato doesn’t gloss over this part of the family history, writing that the men would travel to Moran’s Lake Pontchartrain camp four times a year for fishing, hunting and good times.
In 1951, Moran was called before a congressional committee investigating organized crime. He testified at one of the hearings convened by Sen. Estes Kefauver in New Orleans.
The story goes that when he arrived at the hearing in full diamond-encrusted wardrobe, his attorney Monk Zelden suggested he remove the bling. Diamond Jim asked whether the testimony would be televised. When the answer was yes, his response was, “Well, the ice stays.”
Moran went on to answer Kefauver’s questions, then suggested the senator come fish or hunt at his camp some time. When Moran died, his name was entered into the Congressional Record and Kefauver called him a “dear friend,” adding, “Diamond Jim represented the American dream. He was truly a gem of all the people.”
Syndicated newspaper columnist Robert Ruark once wrote of Moran, “So what if he knew Capone and Costello? He also knew Truman.” Moran’s customers did indeed include the famous and the infamous.
Actors, actresses, athletes and singers all frequented his restaurants: Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmy Durante, Jack Dempsey, Liberace, Don Ameche, Abbott and Costello, Barbara Stanwyck and Johnny Carson, to name a few.
The star power glittered almost as much as the diamonds in Moran’s wardrobe. He claimed to have bought his first diamond for $5 when he was eight or nine years old. In his heyday, he wore up to 425 diamonds at one time, including in his teeth. “He is probably the only man in America who has his teeth cleaned at the jewelers,” one reporter joked.
A longtime horse racing fan, Moran’s wardrobe of colorful suits, fur hats, coats and mink ties, would turn heads during annual visits to the Kentucky Derby. "I've got suits that would rival some of the coronation robes in England," he told reporters at Churchill Downs one year. "I'm so loaded with jewelry, pal, I don't know where I'm going to hang most of it."
In 1954, Moran bought La Louisiane, the Iberville Street restaurant with roots in the 1800s. He added to the menu the Italian specialties he had become known for. His wife Mary contributed a signature dish: meatballs and spaghetti. “Through this door pass the most delicious meatballs in the world,” read a sign over the dining room.
Mrs. Moran would prepare the meatballs at the family home at Esplanade and Royal. They would be delivered by cab to the restaurant to protect her secret recipe.
She is said to have inadvertently given him the gimmick for which he is still remembered. She once lost a diamond ring while hand-mixing a batch of meatballs. She discovered too late and the jewelry-filled meatball was served to a customer, who was surprised but fortunately didn’t swallow. Diamond Jim acted like the whole thing was planned, then realized its promotional potential.
Once it became his trademark, a 1956 newspaper article said Moran was rumored to have given away two diamond rings a week. Much better than finding a tiny pearl in a raw oyster, one customer said.
While nearly every member of the family, including the author, worked in Moran’s restaurants over the years, two of his four sons became well-known for their own food careers.
Tony and Jimmy Moran, now both deceased, took over La Louisiane when their father died while dining with friends at the restaurant in 1958. The sons’ names later graced their own restaurants, including Jimmy Moran’s Riverside, where Fettucine Alfredo was a house specialty.
Brocato’s book includes a recipe for the dish, along with his grandmother’s once-secret meatball recipe. Diamonds are optional and Brocato suggests button mushrooms as a cheaper alternative, as his father often did at family dinners.
There are also recipes for osso bucco, pasta carbonara, eggplant pasta, Creole gumbo and lentil soup (world heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano’s favorite dish).
Throughout the book, Brocato includes dozens of photographs, not just of Diamond Jim, his restaurants and famous friends, but also of family members, including cousins from the Angelo Brocato family, famous for their Italian ice cream and desserts, and Peter DiMartino, a relative by marriage and owner of the local restaurant chain DiMartino’s.
The quality of some of the photos included in the book could be better, but it’s clear this was a labor of love. After all, it’s hard not to love Diamond Jim. In a city that reveres its characters, he still shines among the brightest.
“Food for Kings: Diamond Jim – A New Orleans Legend” is available for $20.50 on Amazon.com. An edition featuring color photographs is available for $45.