“There are few cities in the United States that zealously defend the concepts of ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’ as much as New Orleans… In this town, restaurants and hotels proudly state the year of their birth as a means of advertising, wearing turn-of-the-century founding dates like politicians wear American flag pins in their lapels.
“Ignore all of it. It isn’t the longevity of a restaurant that should impress anyone (hell, Friendly’s Restaurants have been in business since 1935). With the wealth of eateries in New Orleans, it’s those with the best food that keep customers returning. So don’t visit Casamen-to’s Restaurant because it was founded in 1919; visit because it has the best oysters in New Orleans” (Will Woldenberg at gonola.com).
We ate at Casamento’s on either our second or third trip to New Orleans and, despite the excellence of the food, never managed to return. Good intentions were lost as our time in New Orleans rapidly shrunk. Even five weeks over Christmas left us without our return. This time, I—the oyster lover—was not to be denied.
One of the first things that you notice is that the sidewalk outside this very narrow (maybe fifteen feet wide at most) building is tiled with green and whitish marble (?)/granite(?) in colors that mimic the green and white tiles on the restaurant’s front.
Inside you find a riot of competing patterns. The tile on the front of the oyster bar contains what appear to be medieval shields. The floor, much of which must be original to the restaurant, is an intricate pattern in green and white. And then there are the tile walls which are a story in themselves.
“Casamento's Restaurant was established in 1919 by Joe Casamento, a hard working immigrant from Ustica, Italy.
Casamento's is a spotlessly clean restaurant tiled inside and out. Following building traditions from his native Italy, Mr. Casamento knew tiled surfaces would be easier to clean. So much tile was needed to meet Mr. Casamento's requirements that it took 4 tile companies from across the United States to fill the order. Customers liken it to a giant swimming pool” (casamentosrestaurant.com).
Being New Orleans and with a holiday (Easter) ap-proaching, small pastel colored stuffed animals were hung from hooks on the wall. And, in case you are dining alone or don’t want to converse with your dining companion, Casamen-to’s offers a variety of reading materials (such as the latest copy of Garden & Gun). And, completing the décor are t-shirts autographed by such famous New Orleans chefs as Emeril Lagassee (left) and Leah Chase (below). Leah is the owner of the revered Dooky Chase’s restaurant which bears her late husband's name.
I suspect that many of our fellow diners were tourists (Remember, we are not tourists we are travelers.), who may have seen Casamento’s featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. One party of four, who were probably older than Chuck and I, entered, and I noticed one of the women in the party was carrying a brochure for a zip line. Go for it, Momma.
Behind the bar you will find two experienced oyster shuckers. Mike has worked at Casamento’s since Katrina. Before that, he spent thirty years shucking for Uglesich's Restaurant, another New Orleans eatery that closed pre-Katrina.
Casamento’s is particular—very particular—about its oysters and completely closes during the months of June, July, and August. “The old guideline was to eat oysters only in months that are spelled using the letter ‘R.’ This came from the days before refrigeration when oysters could quickly spoil. However, there is another good reason to stick to fall, winter, and spring for your oyster forays, particularly when eating raw oysters. Oysters spawn in the warm summer months, usually May through August…. Spawning causes them to become fatty, watery, soft, and less flavorful instead of having the more desirable lean, firm texture and bright seafood flavor of those harvested in cooler, non-spawning months” (homecooking.about.com).
In addition to oysters on the half shell, Casamento’s is known for the “Oyster Loaf” which is their take on the oyster poor boy and looks like a sandwich on extra thick Texas Toast. “Unlike most New Orleans seafood restaurants, Casamento's uses their own signature bread called ‘pan bread’ instead of French bread. Our oyster loaves have been acclaimed as far away as Australia and England and featured in numerous publications including, ‘Best in New Orleans Magazine.’” (casamentosrestaurant.com).
If you prefer not to eat fried foods, your choices here are somewhat limited to raw oysters, gumbo, oyster stew, grilled cheese, and spaghetti and meatballs (remember that Joe Casamento was of Italian origin).
But all of Casamento’s fried foods are coated with corn flour making them safe for those on a gluten-free diet. Your choices, in addition to the oyster loaf, are shrimp, catfish, trout, and soft shell crab (in season) loafs which come in full or half sizes. And the same range of fish and seafood are offered, in small and large sizes, as dinners that come with fries.
It didn’t take long for us to make our decision. We would share both the Seafood Platter with oysters (for me), shrimp, crab claws, catfish (we could have chosen trout), and French fries. And if this wasn’t enough, we’d add a small appetizer order of fried calamari (above).
Your seafood/fish comes with lemon wedges—period. No tartar sauce. If you want cocktail sauce you construct your own using the horseradish, catsup, and hot sauce on the table. While I did experiment with my “own make” cocktail sauce, I quickly learned that all this marvelous fish/seafood needed was a quick squirt of lemon.
The use of corn flour gives the fish/sea-food a light and thin coating with just a bit of additional crunch. The four or five pieces of catfish(we ate so fast that I didn’t keep an accurate count) were sweet, flaky, and juicy (large pieces on the left in the photo above). Just what you want. The large portion of shrimp (just to the right of the catfish) was equally good. The calamari—both rings and tentacles—were fried just to the point of being done and there was nary a chewy piece on the plate. And under the thin coating, the crab claws (left, mixed with the french fries) tasted of sweet crab meat.
And then there are the oysters (left, pieces below the lemon wedge). Magnifi-cent. All you need to know is that Chuck is not an oyster eater (other than the char-grilled oysters we ate at LA Seafood in Duson, LA) and that I was anticipating having the entire portion of oysters to myself. Will I never learn? How many times will I do this to myself? Wanting him to at least taste part of one, I divided an oyster and gave him the smaller less plump half. He took a bite and exclaimed “Talk about tasting the sea!” Yep, I had to share by giving Chuck the smaller end of each oyster.
You can find a lot of great oysters in Southern Louisiana, but none better than at Casamento’s, and this New Orleans legend is truly a 5.0 Addie stop.
To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.