Long before the rest of the country caught up to the wisdom of local, seasonal eating, New Orleans has embraced the concept as a matter of plain old common sense. Of course food tastes better when it’s in season. We anticipate crawfish in the early days of spring, devour Creole tomatoes in the dog days of summer, savor sweet potatoes and mirliton in fall, and suck down Plaquemines Parish citrus throughout winter.
Few New Orleans restaurants demonstrate this hardwired passion for seasonality more than Casamento’s, the Uptown oyster bar and fried seafood emporium. But the 92-year-old restaurant is not on the touchy-feely, Alice Waters-esque ingredient worship bandwagon. Casamento’s simply closes up shop some time in May, when the brackish coastal waters of Louisiana turn too warm for premium oysters, and re-opens in September, when the briny Gulf bivalves are fat and happy again. For a restaurant, this is the ultimate proof of seasonal loyalty.
The bi-annual event is so ingrained in the culture here that news of Casamento’s closing or re-opening can alter the mood in the city. New Orleanians grow melancholy when Casamento’s shuts down for the season because it signals at least four months of jungle humidity and oppressive heat ahead. Hope returns when word spreads about Casamento’s planned opening, as it prophesies cooler Fall days and afternoons slurping cold, raw oysters by the dozen.
How many oysters you order, how you eat them, and where you eat them is all part of the ritual at Casamento’s. For longtime customers, it’s an instinctual reflex, like the way you tie your shoes or brush your teeth.
I head straight to the standing oyster bar where champion shucker (and Bluerunner Bean commercial celebrity) Mike Rogers rips through piles of cold oysters. If you smile right, or just ask, he’ll serve your oysters with a special cocktail sauce. His concoction is an oyster purist’s nightmare of ingredients, including ketchup, hot sauce, horseradish, lemon, and olive oil. It’s not bad on a couple of the dozen or so slick, quivering oysters I’ll order and eat every which way. Some, bare-naked to fully experience the oyster’s cold, salty, and viscous glory. Others with a squirt of lemon, a shake of hot sauce, or a dab of horseradish; sometimes on a cracker.
Sampling the entire menu is part of the job, but no matter how satisfying a fried seafood platter is here, I want the oyster loaf. Oysters are dredged through corn flour, fried golden, and piled between two pieces of crisped, buttered slabs of Texas-toast-style white bread. (Because Casamento’s doesn’t do French bread—a major culinary coup in this po-boy town.) This sandwich is the only competition the sacred po-boy faces here, and as a vehicle for fried oysters, Casamento’s oyster loaf comes out on top.
Crackling fried shrimp, catfish, crab claws, and trout also reach masterpiece status on Casamento’s stubbornly un-trendy menu. Fried food does not sweat hot grease here; it achieves a greaseless, crunchy, bronzed glow thanks to the kitchen’s deft skill with dry corn flour batters and the delicate, temperature-sensitive art of frying. (Good news for the wheat-sensitive who routinely deny themselves the pleasures of fried food: fried seafood at Casamento’s is gluten-free.)
One of the best examples of the fried softshell crab in New Orleans can be found here. It is a periodic delicacy on the menu, announced by a hand-scrawled piece of paper taped to the restaurant’s window. I can’t verify this as fact, but it’s hard to imagine the appearance of that sign not causing a few collisions on Magazine Street as drivers slow down to look for it.
Casamento’s tomato- and okra-enriched seafood gumbo has no match in the city, mostly because no two gumbos are alike in this town. It is peppery and not too heavy. Crab claws and gumbo shrimp practically dissolve in the soup, but the strong, clean seafood-iness of the ruddy, slightly thickened broth makes up for the loss of texture. Gumbo is a year-round entitlement in New Orleans, but in cooler months, I prefer the thin, creamy oyster stew. The soup is unapologetically simple: milk, butter, sweet onions, and plump, scarcely cooked oysters.
Spaghetti and meatballs are on the menu, too, but the watered-down version here is easy to shrug off. The dish is a concession to diners who don’t like seafood, and it is probably kept on the menu out of respect for the founding owner’s Italian heritage. Locals who say nice things about it probably do so out of loyalty and sentimental gratitude for the one dish they enjoyed as kids at Casamento’s, before developing an appreciation for oysters.
The beauty of Casamento’s extends beyond the peerless menu of fried seafood and raw oysters. It is the kind of restaurant you wish you lived next door to for the proximity to oysters, but also for the genuinely warm, laidback vibe, and for the sassy, veteran waitresses and shuckers who make a good time so easy here.
The restaurant is a ceramic jewel box covered floor to ceiling, inside and out in gleaming, pristine tile and vintage mosaic inlay. Formica four-tops and wooden chairs line the two narrow, squeaky-clean, dining rooms. I’m only half-kidding when I tell friends that if a stray fried oyster landed on the floor here, the revulsion of fellow diners may be the only thing to keep me from eating it. That’s how sterile and tidy Casamento’s is.
Casamento’s has been a family-run business since Italian immigrant Joe Casamento opened the restaurant in 1919. Today, his grandson, C. J. Gerdes, along with his wife Linda and a supporting cast of family members, runs Casamento’s like the true New Orleans neighborhood restaurant it has been for more than 90 years. They have fed generations of local families and the restaurant has always closed four-plus months out of the year for no other reason than the principle of only serving an oyster at its best. As long as the door is open, it’s where I’ll go to get my classic New Orleans raw and fried fix.
An oyster bar and fried seafood emporium, Casamento's is one of the city's culinary landmarks.