Dells Bucket List #20 - Going behind-the-scenes of Taste of New Orleans restaurant

Eating authentic food from one of my favorite cities is usually something I only experience while on vacation. Being it’s been a couple years since my last visit, having the opportunity to enjoy delicious Cajun cuisine right here in the Dells, saving me the over one thousand mile trip south, definitely made my recent stop at the Taste of New Orleans restaurant a highly enjoyable one.

Taste of New Orleans is owned by Sam Rotolo and his wife June, who opened the growing restaurant back in 2008, and has nearly doubled its sales every two years. Not knowing what to expect when he started this unique restaurant in a tourist town, he told me: “I didn’t figure it would last more than three weeks! Our biggest problem our first year was, the first three months, was not ordering enough food!”

Having worked out the kinks of opening a restaurant that serves original New Orleans fare so far from home, Sam, who I found to be an extremely warm and colorful character, masterfully creates the flavor of southern Louisiana where he was born and raised. 

While primarily learning the culinary art from his mother, who was a registered chef, he perfected his craft by trading recipes late nights as a commercial fisherman while catching oysters, shrimp, and crab in the bayou, as well as working as a cook in numerous restaurants and country clubs: “I’ve cooked in every rat-hole kitchen in the city of New Orleans!”

When I asked him what brought him to the Dells, he joked: “Made a wrong turn on the interstate!” In reality, he was turned-on to the Dells while on the road selling Native American regalia at a horse show. Having heard the town’s heritage matched part of his own, he eventually made his way here and opened a store called Sage Brush Jewelry, which sold Indian artifacts. The store was open for six years before he ventured back into the restaurant business.

When I first arrived at the restaurant I was kindly greeted by Mary Jo, a waitress who brought me a hot cup of chicory coffee, immediately taking me back to my visits to New Orleans famous Café Du Monde. While sipping the tasty brew, I wandered around the large restaurant decorated with numerous cultural items, bringing back further fond memories of one America’s most unique cities. 

Sam’s latest acquisition for the place is a twelve foot mounted alligator, which he believes was killed by one of his friends featured on the History channel show: Swamp People. Having killed a few hundred alligators himself back in the day, he recently went down to the bayou to visit with some of his old pals, and brought back autographs pictures of the now celebrities to display on the restaurant walls. 
Eager to try some of the food, Sam brought me into the kitchen, where I found a few of his chefs getting ready for the day. Sam told me that much of his food is brought up all the way from New Orleans to keep things genuine, and that he goes through over a hundred pounds of a secret seasoning a year, which he gets from a ninety-four year old man that has been making it down there for years.

After demonstrating some of the various cooking techniques he uses, it was hard not to want to try all the tasty sounding dishes he was describing. Having written two cookbooks that he sells at the restaurant, he told me he shared many of his personal recipes, but just don’t expect to find out how to make his Cajun potato salad the exact same way he does. “Some things have to be kept a secret,” he said with a smile.

Saying that his deep fried catfish is to die for, he brought me out a plate, which admittedly was quite good and not greasy at all. A bowl of gumbo on the side had just the right kick, and for dessert was a plate of his special River Boat Bread Pudding with hot rum sauce, made the exact same way his grandmother made it working on the famous Creole Queen riverboat, which sailed on the Mississippi River. It literally melted in my mouth.

Having tasted just a few of his family recipes, it was pretty obvious that “family” is a reoccurring theme you’ll find while visiting the restaurant. Along with the nice family atmosphere, Sam, who is a great story teller and quick with the jokes, told me that he tries to greet each and every guest during their meal.

When talking about his customers he said: “They come here once, twice, and back, and everyone is on a first name basis. Well, I might not remember everybody’s first name, but we don’t forget a loving face. And we hug, I bet you I’ve hugged and kissed half my customers! Because we’ve just become family, and I think that’s important. That you have camaraderie between your customers and yourself. When I sign my cookbooks I always say: Good food makes good friendship.”

Having only met him once, but already feeling like he is now a friend, I asked him how it felt to bring a little something from home to share in the Dells. He told me: “Me and my wife really worked hard at this. We are very proud at what we got, and you know at night I walk up on the balcony to do the money after closing, and I look down at the place and I say – damn this was my dream and I’m living it now.”

Taste of New Orleans is open seven days a week April through September, weekends March and October. After that, Sam goes down south to go fishing. For more information visit: or call 608-254-2020

- Christopher Dearman