I'm guilty of all of the above, and it is uncharted territory. So to get a better footing, I've made some of my friends into tutors and with them began attending what amounts to a self-directed sports history class at Impastato's Restaurant, the Creole/Italian eatery that Saints devotion built. Over plates of too much fettuccine, veal and seafood au gratin, I can point to just about any spot around the memorabilia-decked dining room, say "tell me about that" and collect from my companions a lesson in the history, personalities, triumphs and downfalls of the local sporting life.
No restaurant is more closely associated with the Saints, and Impastato's collection of memorabilia, autographed jerseys, game balls and helmets is all the more impressive because the athletes honored by all these displays are frequently in attendance. Saints players often drop in with entourage in tow, and Impastato's is sometimes the venue for Saints team events. The restaurant even alters its hours during football season, opening on Sundays when the Saints are playing at home.
Unlike my own sudden fanaticism, Impastato's connection to the Saints goes back to the restaurant's very beginning. Proprietor Joe Impastato, who also is president of the Saints Hall of Fame in Kenner, opened his restaurant in 1979. One of the first events he hosted was a welcome party for Dick Nolan, who started a three-season stint as Saints head coach that year (yes, I had to Google his name). Thus began an informal relationship with the team that has spanned 27 seasons of Saints football.
Joe Impastato's relationship with Creole/Italian cooking goes back much further than his connection with the Saints. He was born in Sicily on the eve of World War II and moved to New Orleans as a teenager in 1956. He was taken under the wing of another man named Joe Impastato -- from the same town in Sicily and a distant relative -- whose family had run Napoleon House since 1914. The younger Impastato worked at Napoleon House and lived upstairs in the French Quarter landmark for years. Later, he went to work for restaurateurs Tony and Jimmy Moran at La Louisiane in its original incarnation.
When Impastato opened his own restaurant in Metairie, he did so with a five-course meal priced at $12. The prix fixe menus are still available, though the prices now are between $28 and $34, depending on the entre. This remains the best way to sample Impastato's cooking, which is sometimes delicious, sometimes disappointing and in all cases heavy, hearty and generously portioned.
The typical meal starts with crawfish au gratin, shrimp scampi or "Rickey Jackson's crab fingers." This last choice is the best, the "fingers" being plump claws in a lemon butter sauce that shows up more frequently across the menu than a hand off to Reggie Bush on first down. For instance, it is also used on the scampi, which is hobbled by dull and undersized shrimp. But the second course is always a crowd-pleaser: equal portions each of angel hair pasta with a mildly spiced red sauce and a rich, ribbon-thin fettuccine Alfredo that is a major house specialty. The third course, a basic house salad, is surprisingly delicious because it starts with whole leaves of very fresh, crisp Romaine lettuce and adds a lip-smacking vinaigrette dressing.
The special comes with a choice of one of at least 10 entrees, which vary from ordinary veal dishes to some very good seafood selections. The best is trout Payton, recently renamed for the Saints' new coach. Just like the trout Haslett that preceded it, the very large fillet is lightly breaded, fried and served with mushrooms, artichoke hearts, knuckles of lump crabmeat and a sprinkling of those smallish shrimp the kitchen uses. The fish flakes nicely under the fork and stands up to all the other company on the plate. The veal Payton has all the same ancillary ingredients, but the veal proves chewy. The same cut of meat does better as a straight-forward veal parmesan, liberally smothered in Impastato's good red sauce and a blanket of stretchy, tangy cheese.
Avoid the shrimp Giuseppe, which is just a larger version of the unsuccessful scampi appetizer, but definitely hit the soft-shell crab Marcello when it is available. Fried, topped with the familiar lemon butter sauce and garnished with more crabmeat, this dish is served with two crabs -- no matter how big they're running -- and most people will not be able to finish it. There's no point in saving room for dessert, which consists of unimpressive slabs of cakes and pies.
Besides Saints players, Impastato's is popular with big groups of big people, and these parties typically bog down service for everyone else. If you get caught behind such a huddle, you may need to remind the wait staff to bring water, butter for the nice, crusty bread, napkins and even utensils.
Despite the sports bar decor, Impastato's dresses up for fine dining. Some of the waiters wear tuxedos, as does Roy Picou, the lounge singer who croons from a tiny, drape-framed stage in the dining room. Picou sings a familiar repertoire of love songs, which -- at least under Impastato's roof -- is a category that includes "When the Saints Go Marching In."