Smoking oil bristled and popped as a cook submerged each floury part -- drumstick, thigh, breast and wing -- but I didn't hear that music. I was too riveted by a guy who breezed in wearing a pin-striped suit, dark spiky hair and a silver-screen magnetism; he's as close as I'll ever get to Johnny Depp. He laughed with a woman at the bar who managed to look sporty in a pink, floor-length satin skirt, and as I took my first swig of Rolling Rock, the pair was joined by a wispy man in a beige suit whose cigarette seemed permanently adjoined to the corner of his turned-down chops. Like caricatures of a film noir cast, the three retreated to a back room.
Over the next half-hour, until steamy chicken juices seared my soft palate and arrested my reverie, I watched a carnival of personages file through the warped and wooden ship-themed restaurant: a sad-face clown towing his guitar; a parade of thighs in striped tights; reporters with notebooks protruding from back pockets like VIP passes; cowboys, pillbox hats, acres of tattoos, one accordion, and co-eds who, in this company, looked "alternative" wearing Abercrombie and Fitch. The waiter glanced up from his smoke to ask each hesitant newcomer, "Here for bingo?" They all were. I considered following them to the back room, wondering what I'd been missing in my great-grandmother's favorite game, but that would have meant abandoning the chicken and its hot-peppered, craggy batter. Maybe next week.
Wedged between the French Market and Decatur Street, Fiorella's has fed the French Quarter since the 1930s, a time when the area belonged to Sicilian immigrants, when Brocato's sold ice cream on Ursulines Avenue and when the French Market was still an exotic meeting place of cultures.
Fiorella's remains a neighborhood fixture, like Matassa's grocery and Verti Mart's steam table. Today its clientele is citywide: even an Uptowner could run into friends and wind up sharing a table. The Fiorella family sold the bar-restaurant a few years ago, but current owners Victor and Sara Morgan (former partners at Angeli on Decatur) haven't meddled much with the formula aside from expanding the dinner menu. Longtime favorites like fried chicken, onion rings and meatloaf are as unchanged as the restaurant's porthole windows, raised deck-like dining areas and suspended fishing nets.
The Fiorellas also left behind a roster of Italian dishes. Try the red gravy, dirtied with pepper flecks and garlic reek, as an appetizer smothering heavily battered eggplant discs. The warmed muffaletta needs work -- less bun, more stuff -- but its finely chopped olive salad with whole capers redeems the Paisano sandwich, which would be just Provolone and tomatoes without it. Terrific banana pudding, a staple on several casual Italian menus around town, contains no real banana, but extra vanilla wafers come crushed on top.
Butter beans, Thursday's special, are sometimes soft and creamy and other times an orange-colored mash that's too salty to finish without lip balm. The hamburger steak, like tender meatloaf in the shape of a ribeye, is more reliable: shot through with green herbs and covered with thin strips of onion browned at the edges. Given a choice of side dishes, order long-cooked cabbage with andouille instead of sometimes-gloppy macaroni and cheese; and real mashed potatoes with thick, beefy gravy instead of standard bar fries.
Fiorella's is notorious for top-notch seafood po-boys. I had no objections to the one crammed with moist fried oysters and spicy fried shrimp that I tried, but it's the one made with battered and fried sour pickle chips that consumes my memory. Pickle lovers will understand. Dressed with a side of incendiary Creamy Cajun dressing, it could be the next Jazz Fest superstar.
The wait staff is unusually cooperative, encouraging even lemonade drinkers to linger. It's better to eat before bingo starts (10 p.m.), though, when the cooks still seem to like their jobs. It's Bingo! actually -- part band, part game and part multi-media experiment. Clint Maedgen, the Johnny Depp look-alike, leads the band with his pipe organ, saxophone, flute and melting voice. Other members play upright bass, violin, drums and noise-making implements most people would consider nuisances; their combined sound fluctuates between Tom Waits, zoot-suit rockabilly, Carnival noise and funk-powered burlesque -- each song challenging the notions that everything has been done before and that nothing new is born in New Orleans.
Drama-driven side characters call bingo between sets, and the audience plays along on vintage bingo cards distributed at the door. Each week a new collection of inane, often hilarious, home movies project to a screen above the bar.
Fiorella's has never been a music hall, but thanks to the Morgans and to Maedgen -- also a bicycle deliveryman for the restaurant -- Bingo! is a standing order on Thursdays. And, improbable as it sounds, it's virtually gimmick-free. The avant-garde evening suits the old-time restaurant in a way that only seems possible in New Orleans. With any luck, Fiorella's Bingo! night tradition will prove as unmutable as the restaurant's fried chicken legacy.