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Shucking Her Responsibilities 

The oysters at CASAMENTO'S are enough to make a restaurant critic rethink her anonymity -- and her position.

Casamento's is a perfect New Orleans restaurant. For one, as the tight menu suggests, it's content to do just a few dishes well, beginning with oysters. It's a family-run enterprise from the pay phone in front to the gleaming white kitchen in back, with teenage daughters occasionally working in between. The restaurant is so wholly steeped in the old-fashioned -- Italian immigrant Joe Casamento opened it in 1919, when it looked much like it does now -- that its alluring neon sign, Art Deco fluorescent light fixtures and floor-to-ceiling tiles are almost too good to trust. It's a cash-only holdout and, like any New Orleans institution worth pondering, it's the object of mythology and longing; each year the restaurant closes during the hottest months, and the break has a libidinous effect on its devotees.

All of this is why I've chosen to write about Casamento's for my final review as Gambit Weekly's restaurant critic.

First, the oysters, which are as choice and consistent as the craftsmen who open them. Casamento's shuckers work behind a short, standing room-only bar, raking the rough mollusks from a top-loaded metal bin that resembles a furnace but keeps them ice cold. The oysters tumble into the shuckers' trough like dirt-covered rocks or potatoes freshly unearthed; opened, their glimmering lobes can be as small as silver dollars or mighty enough to clog a drainpipe. They're sometimes salty, sometimes not, and they always taste of the sea: cool, raw, damp and rather alive.

For some people the Louisiana oyster is an acquired taste; for others it's never acquired. Following my first visit to Casamento's, shortly after moving to New Orleans, I wrote that "they look like just the sorts of things people in other parts of the country would -- and should -- fear." But as anxiety is prone to do, mine bred curiosity and, soon, adoration. Now the inner debate is not whether to brave the raw ones but, instead, six or a dozen? Abita or Dixie?

Whatever else I might order -- the delicate oyster milk stew with its buttery film; the fried seafood platters for which lard is a savory ingredient, not just a medium for heat; the seasonal soft-shell crabs, their availability posted on a sign in the front window -- I feel a moral obligation to eat at least a half dozen raw. I've worked out a technique for managing the big ones, cupping one hand over my mouth to restrain the tidal wave of seawater cut loose with the first bite. I've also developed a rigid methodology for assessing the profile of a given day's catch: Taste the first one bare, the second with a squeeze of lemon and the third with the locally preferred orgy of condiments: ketchup, hot sauce, horseradish and lemon, combined to taste. After that, the winner takes all.

Casamento's oyster loaf on pan bread (essentially Texas toast) is a white-bread masterpiece. Dressed only with butter and served with lemon and pickle spears, the sandwich is a straightforward vehicle for showcasing oysters that have been dredged in corn flour and fried to popping in a cast-iron pot.

The oysters make Casamento's, and so do the tiles. Their sterile charm begins with the mosaic splashed on the front sidewalk; then it climbs up the facade, stretches in colorful bouquets and abstract topiaries along the walls of both dining rooms and runs out through the back screen door to the outdoor-access restrooms. There's never a question of sanitation here, which is comforting given that raw oysters require harsher warnings than smoking on a maternity ward. Casamento's diverges in this respect from the city's other great neighborhood restaurants, most of whose designs incorporate enough dark wood paneling to inflict night sweats on a feng shui consultant.

One of my favorite images is of C.J. Gerdes, the founder's grandson and current proprietor, standing before the gas stove enveloped in an angelic white glow. Morning sun shone through the open window, illuminating the kitchen's white refrigerator coolers, the glass cupboard doors, the white tile floor and the white paper grocery bags hanging from antique hooks. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt that had the arms cut off, C.J. has a need-for-speed aesthetic that might clash with the unchanging restaurant if the two weren't so unified in their mission.

His peppery, tomato-based, seafood and okra gumbo is appropriately old-school; it grew on me in spite of a minor prejudice against tomato in gumbo.

Not everything here tastes brilliant -- who orders the spaghetti with watery red sauce and leathery daube twice? -- but Casamento's wouldn't be counted among the city's best neighborhood restaurants if the menu didn't include some inexplicable duds. Consider its participation in New Orleans' living culinary history more well-rounded for it.

My final argument for Casamento's perfection is perhaps too subjective: It's a three-minute stroll from my front door.

If there's one downside to restaurant reviewing, it's the impracticability of becoming a regular anywhere. The responsibility to remain anonymous and to keep educated on the dining scene by eating in as many different restaurants as possible all but prohibit it. The position's perks are obvious, but it can get lonely. As I contemplated relinquishing this column after four and a half years, I realized I had developed a real yearning to belong somewhere, to become a regular. Restaurants are public spaces of terrific intimacy -- life decisions are deliberated, proposals are accepted, food and its artistry are transferred from one person's hand to another's mouth, desires are fulfilled for the unspoken promise of a tip. If you partake in this exchange anonymously, you dine; become a member of a restaurant's extended family and you eat. As in human relationships, the subtle difference is one of comfort level and mutual commitment.

After all this dining, it turns out I'm still hungry, which speaks well for New Orleans and its food: it doesn't grow stale. Having supped superbly (most of the time) around a formidable number of Formica and linen-clad tables, at marble counters and in smoke-soaked bars -- dragging so many patient friends and readers with me, hungry or not -- I'm more inspired than ever to unearth the histories and mysteries lurking beneath the food culture of this awesome, humbling city. The logical next step in that direction, I think, is to become more a participant in the culture than a wallflower. And for the aforementioned reasons, I've chosen Casamento's as a launching pad.

I've already made some headway, having eaten there once a week for the past two months. I sealed my vote on Election Day with an oyster loaf; I introduced my hesitant in-laws to those beefy Louisiana beauties, standing at the bar and sharing a cold Dixie from the bottle; and I soothed the season's first sniffles with a bowl of oyster stew. Last week, I'm pretty sure the oyster shucker recognized me, a historic moment. Writing this farewell marks another historic, somewhat bittersweet, moment in my personal history. I'll no longer show up in this column, but now you know where to find me, at least once a week.

click to enlarge Filling the floors and walls and underscoring the - interior's spotless feel, the white tiles are just as - important as the oysters at CASAMENTO'S. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Filling the floors and walls and underscoring the interior's spotless feel, the white tiles are just as important as the oysters at CASAMENTO'S.
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