My New Orleans restaurant to-do list is almost complete. Actually, it will probably never be complete as there will always be new restaurants to visit and old standbys to re-visit. But the original list I compiled several years ago is nearing the end.
I have been eating in the Crescent City all of my life, but 40 years ago, when I first started working in restaurants, I began to dine out differently— using what I call, “restaurant eyes.” After we fired our chef on opening night back in 1987, I started making more frequent trips to New Orleans to try and soak up every bit of knowledge I could about professional cooking.
So, for the past 33 years I have been eating around that city, not only for enjoyment, but as serious research and development for our restaurants. Though, in the last four years— after I finally broke down and got an apartment down there— the restaurant to-do list grew exponentially. These days— as a part-time New Orleanian— I’m averaging around 150+ restaurant meals in New Orleans each year.
Four years ago— knowing that we were going to be spending more time than usual in New Orleans— I made a list of restaurants I wanted to visit, and restaurants I wanted to revisit. The new restaurant list was easy to compile and very extensive. The revisit list it was even easier to compile because I was listing places in which I would like to return. I had “been there, done that,” but I wanted more. Some I have returned to with frequency and others I haven’t visited in years.
A restaurant that has been on my must-visit list for a couple of decades is Mosca’s. For someone who eats as much as I do in and around that city— and as one who deeply appreciates the old-line classic restaurants— I’m almost embarrassed to write that it took me almost 60 years to dine at Mosca’s. I’m also ashamed to write that I’ve only crossed the Huey P. Long bridge one other time in my life and that was coming into the city. I’ve got to get over to that area of the West Bank more often.
Mosca’s is a very remote, very simple, white clapboard structure that looks as if it were a small rural VFW pool hall that was abandoned several years ago. Mosca’s doesn’t even have a sign out front. I love that. The sign must have blown down in one of the recent storms and just hasn’t been replaced. I love that, too. Mosca’s doesn’t need a sign. They have over eight decades of loyal New Orleans families dining there. Inside the tables and chairs are as basic as any restaurant furniture can be. The menu is small, limited, and proudly so. The walls are hung with mostly family pictures. Oh, and there is a James Beard American Classics Award framed on the wall, too. That says all one needs to know about Mosca’s.
The decision to dine there was made at the spur of the moment as my wife and I were driving down to the city. The lady who answered the phone agreed she could seat us, at 5:30, but we would have to be gone by 7:00 PM. No sweat.
The menu is classic red-gravy New Orleans Creole-Italian in origin. There are a couple of chicken dishes that I will order on return visits, and I definitely will be returning. But there are two items on the bill that are worthy of note, and they are the two items that would make me drive all of the way out there again, and again, and again. Oysters Mosca and pasta bordelaise. That is why I was there, and that is what I ordered.
I have collected New Orleans cookbooks and magazines for the past 40 years. Many feature New Orleans restaurant recipes. A dish that shows up often is Oysters Mosca. The best I can tell, it’s oysters baked with bread crumbs, butter, and garlic. Basic, but when paired with pasta bordelaise it is a gem of a dish, and most definitely a New Orleans classic.
The Sicilians would call pasta bordelaise, “Aglio olio. It’s basically Angel hair pasta, olive oil, and garlic. It sounds simple, but it is very, very good. The key, as I discovered on my visit, is to take a bite of the Oysters Mosca and simultaneously take a bite of the pasta bordelaise. Left to themselves, they are perfectly fine dishes. When eaten together, the pairing becomes New Orleans Creole-Italian perfection.
As if Oysters Mosca and Pasta Bordelaise weren’t enough, Mosca’s has a jukebox. I love a jukebox in a restaurant. I love it so much that, as I type, I wonder why none of my restaurants have ever had a jukebox.
My life doesn’t include too many absolutes, but there is one thing that is as sure as anything in my dining habits: If I am in a restaurant or bar that has a jukebox, I am going to play it. Always. I think it’s a sin to walk by a jukebox and not drop money in it. I’m sure it’s in the Bible somewhere.
The Mosca’s jukebox was exactly what one would think a jukebox at Mosca’s would offer. It was filled with mid-century crooner tunes— Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bobby Darren, and the like— which made me even happier to slip a few bills into the slot.
The selections available on the jukebox impressed me, but what impressed me even more was a server. I was having trouble flipping the mechanical pages of the jukebox when a waitress walked by and asked, “What’s the problem?”
“I can’t get back to the previous screen,” I said.
“What do you want to hear?”
“Louis Prima,” I replied.
“Well what song do you want to hear? I know them all.” I love that. There have to be 800 songs on that jukebox, and she knew this specific selection numbers of each one. I gave her six Prima titles and she punched each one in from memory. Again, I love that.
I am not sure why jukeboxes have such a special place in my heart. I guess it’s from my early days eating lunch at the Frostop burger joint after kindergarten. Once I asked my mother for some change to play the jukebox, but she forbid me to play “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel. She wouldn’t explain why, and years later when I finally saw the movie “The Graduate,” I guess I understood, but no five-year-old was going to pick up the plotline of the movie from that song. Nevertheless, as one who has forever been a non-conformist, my jukebox passion— which continues today— must have started there.
Jukeboxes make me happy. It’s hard not to be happy listening to Louis Prima. It’s also hard not to be happy eating Oysters Mosca and Pasta Bordelaise.
Marcelle Bienvenu’s version of Oysters Mosca from NOLA.com
This week’s recipe: RSJ’s Aglio Olio