NEW ORLEANS — As I step in from the bright-hot sun that is beating down on the sidewalk here and settle into the cool dimness of Casamento’s, I am reminded of my first impression of the place — one I formed long ago. Eating lunch at Casamento’s on Magazine Street in New Orleans still feels a lot like dining at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. The floor-to-ceiling white-and-green tiles make me wonder whether the staff push the tables aside each evening and hose the place down.
Casamento’s is a no-nonsense place that serves a variety of local delicacies. The softshell crab is delicious, and the gumbo is much commented on. And no menu of Joe Casamento from Ustica, Italy could fail to include spaghetti and meatballs — not that I or anyone I know has ever ordered it.
A hundred and three years after its founding, as the neon sign out front proclaims, fresh oysters shucked to order at the bar in the front dining room are still the restaurant’s claim to fame. It’s good that Christopher and I make our pilgrimage in spring: Casamento’s isn’t open in the warmest months of the year when oysters aren’t thought to be as tasty.
I order the same thing on every visit. It’s become hard to find an oyster loaf on other menus, and I swoon for the simplicity of it. Casamento’s version is good — great, even — because the oysters are fresh and perfectly crisp and briny and not overcooked as can too often be the case.
When my order arrives, I think of my mother’s oyster loaf. Here, they deep fry the oysters in oil, and I know she’d say that’s wrong. And then there’s the bread. Casamento’s piles the oysters onto thick slices of a pullman loaf, which makes its rendition more like an oyster sandwich than a loaf.
So, while I love everything about Casamento’s, from the neon exterior and the tile interior to the freshness of the seafood, when I order the oyster loaf, I do so knowing it’s the next best thing to my mother’s.
She shallow fried the oysters in clarified butter. They’re better that way. They just are. Then there’s the bread. A true oyster loaf should be just that — a loaf and not a sandwich.
My mother sliced the top from an entire soft French loaf and then hollowed it out to create a shell. Leidenheimer’s was her go-to brand — a very soft loaf. (The chewy artisanal loaves we seek out today won’t do for this dish, which, come to think of it, may be the only good use for supermarket loaves.) Then she buttered and toasted it until it was just a little crispy. If the loaf became overly toasted and hard — say, if she was distracted by an annoying child — she would toss it out and start again.
Next, my mother would roll oysters in a mixture of flour and corn meal and gently fry them until they were shatteringly crisp on the outside and just set and warmed through on the inside. The oysters were then layered in the barely crisp loaf with sliced pickles, either bread-and-butter or dill, depending on what she had on hand.
She spritzed the whole thing with lemon, pressed the top of the loaf back on, and allowed it to rest for a minute. While it was still piping hot, she sliced it with a thin serrated knife and voilà — we’d each take a piece, holding it tightly to keep the oysters tucked in.
Other families served a maximalist counterpoint to my mother’s minimalist recipe, dressing their loaves with shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayonnaise. She doesn’t agree, but now my preference is to brush the toasted bread with a thin layer of Blue Plate. Lettuce and tomatoes, however, still seem superfluous.
Old-School Oyster Loaf
1 soft French loaf, about 10 inches long
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
2 cups fine yellow corn meal
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
¼ tsp. black pepper
¼ tsp. white pepper
24 fresh-shucked oysters, drained
1 pint buttermilk
1 lb. ghee or clarified butter
4 Tbsp. mayonnaise, preferably Blue Plate
1 small jar sliced bread-and-butter or dill pickles
Fresh lemon wedges
Optional garnishes: shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, hot sauce
Before you start, if you don’t have ghee, clarify butter for frying: Melt a pound of butter in a small saucepan over low heat and bring to a bare simmer for about 10 minutes to evaporate some water. It will separate into golden clarified butter and milk solids. Allow to cool slightly and then pour through a fine-mesh strainer. Clarified butter has a high smoke point, which is why it’s good for frying. It will keep covered in the refrigerator for several weeks.
Prepare the loaf: Slice off the top of the entire French loaf (about ½ inch). With your fingers, remove most of the interior of both the bottom and the top of the loaf, being careful not to tear the crust, so that what remains is a hollow shell. Gently butter the top and bottom and lightly toast under the oven broiler. Watch carefully, as the bread should just begin to crisp and brown but should remain soft to the touch. Cover with a dish towel to keep warm.
Prepare the oysters: Whisk together the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl until well blended. Pour the buttermilk into another bowl. Add the oysters to the buttermilk, then remove one oyster at a time, allowing excess liquid to drip back into the bowl. Toss each oyster individually in the dry ingredients, gently pressing the coating into it. Let breaded oysters rest for a few minutes on a cookie sheet.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and add clarified butter (to about ½ inch depth). A piece of torn bread will brown quickly when the butter is hot enough (about 375 degrees F).
Carefully slip in enough oysters to form a single layer without crowding the pan and adjust the heat upward slightly to keep the oysters gently bubbling in the butter. It should take about 90 seconds to get the first side to a golden brown (the edges of the oysters will curl slightly). Turn the oysters and lower the heat slightly. Cook until just golden, being careful not to overcook. Drain the oysters on paper towels and continue until all are cooked.
While the oysters are draining, spread both parts of the loaf lightly with mayonnaise. Add a layer of oysters followed by a layer of pickles. If you want the lettuce and tomato, add those next. Continue layering the oysters and pickles, then squeeze on some fresh lemon juice. Crown it all with the top, press the loaf together gently, and slice into 4 pieces with a thin, serrated knife.