Connecting the Roots
Combination Pan Roast
jeffery johnston photo
New Orleans’ reputation as a dining destination stems in part from its legacy restaurants, a clutch of national treasures whose roots reach back well over 100 years. One place on this list which is often overlooked is Pascal’s Manale. Now in its fifth generation, its roots reach back to southern Italy. Specifically, the community of Contessa Entellina, a town on the Island of Sicily notable for its Albanian heritage. “They speak a different language, Arbëreshë, and their Catholicism is more akin to Greek Orthodox,” explained culinary historian and food personality Poppy Tooker. “Many settled here in New Orleans and they’ve always regarded themselves as different from other Sicilians.”
Whereas most legacy restaurants are the French Creole Grande Dames like Arnaud’s and Antione’s, Pascal’s Manale is notable for being Italian. Also unlike the French Creole places, Pascal’s Manale is a neighborhood spot, more suited to regular visits than special occasions. Its unique residential Uptown location sets it apart. Over the years it has become woven into the fabric of the community, making it feel like an extension of the home. Its oyster bar, tucked to the right of the barroom when you enter, has been shucking the goods since 1913, while its actual bar – an atmospheric masterpiece of carpentry – was originally installed by Dixie Beer as part of an exclusivity agreement not too long after the turn of the 20th century. Considering that Dixie essentially left and came back in the decades that followed, the bar more than anything is a testament to the fact that time stands still here. It looks and feels much the same as it has for generations, with a post-Katrina renovation being the primary measuring stick of the passing years.
On the menu, the predominance of Creole seafood dishes sets it apart from other Creole Italian restaurants. “Take for example their Combination Pan Roast,” Tooker said, “which is not a roast and has no meat in it. While it is a counter-intuitive name for a dish – it refers to the technique rather than the ingredients – this dish contains all the best Gulf seafood in the world.” This garlicy, chopped mélange of oysters, shrimp and crabmeat is a classic not found elsewhere.
Pascal’s Manale is perhaps most famous for its BBQ shrimp, another misnomer as the dish has nothing to do with BBQ but everything to do with garlic, butter, pepper, proprietary seasoning and jumbo peel-and-eat crustaceans, with crusty French bread to sop up the leftover sauce. Reinterpreted versions abound around town, but this is where it all began. If you are too dainty to strap on a bib and get your hands dirty, there is a pre-peeled poor boy version on the lunch menu and peeled shrimp are offered as an add-on with many of the entrees.
Other recommended dishes include the combination remoulade, which comes with not one, but two versions of the iconic sauce. One – a blonde version in which the crabmeat and shrimp are tossed. The other is the more traditional red sauce, used to garnish the plate and add a last-second punch of tomato and horseradish to each bite.
For dessert, try the caramel custard – a light counterpoint to what can be a heavy meal – or you can swing the other way with the bread pudding or their justifiably famous cheesecake. Oyster lovers take note of the half-off happy hour from 3-6 p.m. Monday through Friday, with discounts on select premium drinks. Complimentary gated off-street parking is offered as well.
Pascal’s Manale stands apart from the pack of Creole Italian restaurants around town, so it is hard to draw a comparison. One that comes to mind however is Mosca’s in Westwego, which has been serving heaping platters of their signature Oyster’s Mosca and inimitable Chicken Cacciatore for over sixty years. Their out-of-the-way location makes going here a special occasion best enjoyed with a group of friends.
This article barely scratches the surface of this restaurant’s long history. To learn more, check out “Pascal’s Manale Cookbook” by Poppy Tooker, which traces the lineage of this Creole Italian gem through its five generations of local ownership. Along with recipes, this exhaustively researched work shines a light on the oft-neglected Italian contribution to New Orleans cuisine. “I wrote this one after my Tujague’s book,” Tooker said. “Tujague’s is the second oldest continually operating restaurant where Pascal’s Manale is the second oldest continuingly operating family owned restaurant. Tujague’s tells the French Creole story whereas this tells the Italian Creole story.” Together these two books are companion pieces to the fundamental elements of New Orleans cuisine.