The city of New Orleans has long been compared to the Italian city of Venice. Both places were built on watery slabs, defying common sense, yet stimulating our imaginations. Still reeling from the storm, I am forced to think of New Orleans’ sister city and of the power of water meeting stone.
The Basilica San Marco is the jewel of Venice, but its arches and domes weigh heavily on the piazza, tons of marble and bronze slowly sinking into the canals. Inside the basilica, hundreds of years of floods and high tides have left their mark. Watery forces have pushed on these floors so regularly and for so long that you feel drunk just walking through the door, solid waves of marbled mosaic fooling your eyes and feet with each step. Perhaps the waves have tired of Venice, and they have finally come to push against New Orleans.
Waves of immigration have brought scores of Italians to the Crescent City and other parts of the South for generations, and New Orleans was where a good many of them decided to put down roots. The Casamento family was one of those families. In the early part of the twentieth century, Joe Casamento arrived in New Orleans and opened a restaurant on Magazine Street, putting his family name above the door. Serving fresh seafood and above all, fresh oysters, Mr. Casamento quickly established a reputation for serving some of the best seafood in town.
My recent trek to New Orleans to document bar and cocktail culture happened to fall near the end of oyster season. Naturally, I wanted to get my hands on some while the getting was good, so I headed straight for Casamento’s. This is the kind of place that is so serious about oysters, it closes its doors during the summer months -- those dangerously hot months without “R”s -- signaling the temporary hiatus of the ritualistic union of shellfish, hot sauce, crackers and beer. That fine New Orleans day, I savored half-a-dozen raw oysters and contemplated my mission. Even then, I wrestled with the fact that here I was in New Orleans to document bartenders, but what about this joint? What about all of this decorative tile covering practically every square inch of the place? What about that man in the corner, shucking oyster after oyster all the day long? What about the woman who so carefully delivered that gloriously shiny plate of rawness to my table? What about Joe Casamento, who came to New Orleans from his native Italy and opened a café? What about his family who is continuing the tradition that he started so many decades ago? Who installed all of this tile? All of this tile! Imagine: the Basilica Casamento right there on Magazine Street in New Orleans.
Unfortunately, I had to move on. But I made mental notes: the pattern in the floor, the stacks of candy bars behind the register, the stunted wall in the middle of the room, the tiny kitchen, the sound of oysters being shucked. All of this, thinking that I would be back. That it would all still be there. Today, I don’t know how high the water rose on this particular part of Magazine Street; I don’t know if the tiled floor has been bent and twisted into a solid current of stylized flowers. I pray, though, let Joe Casamento’s monument to his life in this New World stand intact. There may not be any oysters to serve for a while, but services can still be held in the Basilica Casamento.
In the decades since Joe Casamento first arrived in New Orleans, many more have followed, making this unique place their adopted home. It is, indeed, the most European of American cities, and that is certainly part of its appeal. It is also a city whose economy is based in tourism, so there is usually a service industry job to be had -- a shift to pick up, a new trade to learn, an opportunity to move up through the ranks. Paul Gustings landed in New Orleans almost by accident, and he became a bartender -- one of the best.
PAUL GUSTINGS, bartender
The Napoleon House & Tujague’s
New Orleans, LA
Originally from the Netherlands, Paul Gustings flipped a coin one day, headed to the United States, made his way to New Orleans for a visit, and ended up staying. Twenty-three years later, his bartending resume includes some time spent behind the bar at places like the Clubhouse of the Galloping Gooses and Brennan’s Restaurant. Paul’s prickly personality eventually found the right fit at two bars in the French Quarter: Tujague’s and the Napoleon House. While he appreciates a good cocktail, he also appreciates the cocktail connoisseur and hasn’t much patience for less. He’ll take the time to make traditional cocktails the right way and will appreciate you for knowing enough about cocktails to order them. So belly up to the bar, serve Paul a smile, and he’ll serve you a well-made drink.
Find out how the Southern Foodways Alliance and other organizations are reaching out to service industry workers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Amy Evans, email@example.com
Oral Historian, Southern Foodways Alliance