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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Casamento's

The difference between two of New Orleans’ most venerated and revered oyster bars can be summarized in one simple sentence:

Casamento’s is for purists, and the Acme is for tourists.

While such a statement may seem pejorative at face value, it is not a knock on the food served at either establishment, since most New Orleanians would put both places in the city’s top five classic oyster bars.

The differences between the two are to be found in the addresses and attitudes toward change. The Acme is located in the tourist end of the upper French Quarter, between Bourbon and Royal Streets, while Casamento’s can be found near the corner of Napoleon and Magazine in a more genteel residential and shopping district.

In the last fifteen years, Acme has opened four new satellite locations, including one in Destin (Florida), while Casamento’s has stayed in the twenty-foot wide storefront where they opened their doors in 1919.

When sushi was all the rage in the early 1990s, Acme tossed some scallions and wasabi on their raw oysters and touted them as “Cajun Sushi.” When another New Orleans restaurant, Drago’s, developed the charbroiled oysters that took the city by storm, “chargrilled oysters” quickly appeared on the Acme menu. By contrast, Casamento’s has stuck with the oyster basics – on the half shell, fried and oyster stew – and watched the fads pass by their doorstep.

Whether Casamento’s dogged resistance to change has been created by over 90 years of success or plain old hardheadedness on the part of the owners is difficult to say, but the bottom line is, it works well for them.

On the history page of the restaurant’s website is a photograph of the restaurant’s front room taken in 1919. With the exception of the tiles on the counter front, a few different pictures and some updated equipment, it is nearly identical to the view you get when you first walk in the door. That sameness extends into the second dining room behind as well.

While there’s no way of knowing if Italian immigrant Joe Casamento could envision a ninety year run for his restaurant, one of his key early decisions has made it possible for the place to make very few changes as the decades have danced by. Following restaurant traditions of his native Italy, Casamento had tiles installed on all floors and walls to make the restaurant easy to clean. In fact, so many tiles were ordered for the restaurant’s initial installation that it took four separate tile companies from across the United States to fulfill the order.

This same order of tile still covers the floor and lower ten feet of walls today, and the place remains spotless. Original tile also surrounds the twin picture windows, front door and transoms, giving Casamento’s storefront façade its frozen-in-time quality.

While such timeless visual elements enhance both Casamento’s aesthetics and charm, it’s not the architecture or décor that’s served on the plate. It’s the food in general and the oysters in particular.

Should you arrive for an early lunch before the doors open at eleven, the chances are fairly good that you’ll be met with the reassuring sight of men with burlap bags on their shoulders delivering the day’s freshly caught oysters. If you’re seated in the front room and take the opportunity to watch the speed and sure-handedness with which the shuckers work, you’ll realize that not only did you get to lunch before your lunch did, but the whole process happened in a number of minutes you can count on your fingers.

It is at this point where visitors from outside the Gulf of Mexico’s main oystering centers (running from Abbeville, Louisiana, to Apalachicola, Florida) come face to face with a conflict raging between coastal seafood harvesters and overreaching federal bureaucrats hell-bent on creating a “nanny state.” At the center of the controversy is if and to what degree eating raw oysters can be potentially dangerous to human health.

For nearly twenty years, a disclaimer has appeared on menus in most oyster bars warning of health hazards associated with eating raw shellfish. The reason for the somewhat disconcerting warning is Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium that naturally occurs in some oysters. While nothing in this essay should be construed as a professional medical opinion (yes, we writers have to put down disclaimers, too), a combination of facts, history and common sense suggests that the vast majority of the populace have little to nothing to fear from consuming raw oysters.

The truth is, people with serious pre-existing health conditions, such as liver disease, cancer, diabetes, AIDS or other autoimmunity problems, account for virtually all illnesses and deaths (about fifteen per year) from raw oyster consumption. Actuarial figures suggest that a person is far more likely to die from a lightning strike that seafood consumption. Nonetheless, people with conditions putting them at risk are advised to only eat oysters that have been cooked, frozen or pasteurized – a recommendation that already appears on many oyster bar menus. (In fact, Casamento’s menu contains: “Warning: There may be a risk associated with consuming raw shellfish as is the case with other raw protein products. If you suffer from chronic illness of the liver, stomach, or blood, or have other immune disorders, you should eat these products fully cooked.”

Despite the odds against any harm from eating raw oysters, in the fall of 2009, the United States Food & Drug Administration issued a plan to prohibit the sale of raw Gulf Coast oysters for six or more months per year, starting in 2011. At this writing, the proposed ban is being fought by the coastal seafood and oyster industries, which stand to lose thousands of jobs should the proposal be enacted.

That said, the oysters on the half shell at Casamento’s are magnificent. A typical dozen will usually contain both smaller oysters with their intense flavor and some so large you’ll suspect that if they ever produced pearls, they’d be large enough to play golf with.

Fried oysters and shrimp are available as dinners or as “boats,” which are not traditional New Orleans po’boys, but overflowing sandwiches made with the equivalent of Texas toast. Catfish, trout and seasonal soft-shell crabs are also available in both configurations.

The pocket-sized kitchen also produces chicken tenders, spaghetti and meatballs and a seafood combo platter, while a gumbo pot simmers and their overworked fryers produce a steady stream of crab claw and calamari plates.

While there are any number of places to grab a great dozen or two on the half shell in New Orleans, there is an old-fashioned, turn-back-the-clock quality about Casamento’s that separates it from the pack. Perhaps the restaurant being closed every June, July and August best illustrates this.

Years ago, oysters were traditionally served in months with an “R” in their spellings. While it’s true that summer months are not the best for mollusk harvesting, improved oystering techniques have made the “R” rule more of a myth than anything else. That doesn’t mean you won’t see some sort of plaque reading, “Oysters ‘R’ in Season” in oyster bars all across America, although I’ve never noticed one in Casamento’s.

Even though the restaurant stays open through the “R-less” month of May, there remains a charm to its contrarian adherence to myth. And it’s that devotion to times past which makes Casamento’s the Crescent City’s quintessential oyster house, at least for purists.


Casamento's Restaurant, 4330 Magazine St. (at Napoleon)
Open Tuesday - Saturday from 11:00 am - 2:00 pm.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday Evenings from 5:30 pm - 9:00 pm

Closed June, July and August and all Major Holidays

Casamento’s accepts cash only and no reservations.

Telephone: 504-895-9761

Website: www. casamentosrestaurant.com

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