Ah, but familiar smells surface too, like the varied scents of garlic: piercing garlic whipped into butter and eaten with crackery breadsticks; caramel-colored, sweet-smelling garlic adhering to baked chicken like clumps of sticky candy; and funky garlic perfume sweating from thick, dark-red tomato sauce.
Few thoroughbred Italian kitchens exist in the area, but we have an abundance of Creole-Italian restaurants -- red sauce joints, often founded by Sicilian immigrants, that specialize in excesses of spaghetti, cream sauce and lump crabmeat. Vincent Catalanotto's Creole-Italian kitchens rank among the best of them. He opened the original Metairie restaurant in 1989, followed by the Uptown location and another in Baton Rouge. Two of his former employees, Paul Richardson and William Theard, own the Mandeville restaurant, the first official franchise. They carted Catalanotto's menu and recipes across the Causeway last year, along with a sous-chef who had worked in the Vincent's kingdom for four years. Catalanotto occasionally stops by.
The best of Vincent's specialties share the dark-red color and tangy, garlic-saturated flavor of a robust tomato gravy. Meatballs on Garlic Toast provides an opportunity to eat this sauce by the bowl. Crumbly veal meatballs enrich the sauce, while fingers of garlic toast serve as edible spoons. Another appetizer, the Eggplant Sandwich, is a layering of paneed eggplant, sausage, basil leaves and buffalo mozzarella cheese -- all united beneath a surge of redness. Tomato sauce also camouflages a fabulous, if monstrously large, Bracialoni entree: tender top round steak furled around lean bacon and artichoke heart stuffing.
Among the kitchen's talents is its ability to eradicate any plans of eating moderately. Fried eggplant sticks, their hot centers smooth as custard, come by the bushel. A slice of chocolate creme de menthe cake with shamrock-green swirls was the whopping size a 4-year-old might cut for himself on his birthday. The signature, chowder-like corn and crabmeat bisque is served in an adorable bread bowl with an adorable bread lid. But who could eat the bisque and the bowl -- not to mention an entree, plus the gratis dinner salad and the pasta Alfredo side dish that comes with most entrees -- and live comfortably to tell about it? No one, according to my observations. Faced with such portions, it's impossible not to ruminate on the fact that extreme generosity is often a kitchen's attempt at masking inferior food. Fortunately this isn't the case at Vincent's -- here diners get stuffed on quality.
In fact, during our two extensive visits I tasted just two flops; both resulted from inattention in the kitchen rather than inferior products, or even recipes. Cooks could have saved themselves the trouble of making cannelloni pasta shells from scratch, as the cannelloni I received had been broiled brown and crisp as a tortilla chip anyway. So little moisture remained in my over-baked garlic chicken that the thigh weighed as much as a standard chicken wing. The chicken's garlic trimmings, though sweet-smelling, tasted burnt and bitter.
For the most part, though, Vincent's Creole-Italian food is accessible without tasting from-a-box, familiar but expressive. The standing paneed fish special, made with black drum one Friday, is pan-fried just past golden, topped with sauteed lump crabmeat, and delicious. Osso buco is the best deal in the house. The baby white veal meat tugs easily, but not too easily, from its bone, and its rich sauce has the lip-smacking gusto of a labor-of-love demi-glace. The pull-apart white chocolate bread pudding is the only dessert I could think about finishing after a full meal at Vincent's, and I did.
There's a similar meeting of ordinariness and class in the restaurant's surroundings. Mandeville's business community seems to have homed in on the strip mall as capitalism's greatest weapon. Contemporary Northshore strip malls differ from common built-in-a-week shopping centers, though. They're given pastoral names, and they tend to nestle into their green surroundings rather than obliterate them. Vincent's shares Pine Tree Plaza with a wine purveyor, a piano store/coffeehouse, a clothing boutique for sophisticates and several other upmarket, privately owned businesses.
The community has adopted Vincent's as a family spot as well as a date destination. I watched children ease through the transition from booster seats to behaving while young, spirited waitresses served their parents one last Grasshopper. According to part-owner Paul Richardson, St. Tammany Parish families can expect more Vincent's franchises to appear in coming years. Vincent's restaurants are multiplying like strip malls which, Northshorians will attest, is not an unattractive prospect.