Mid 1980’s-late 1990s.
The most successful restaurant ever at the corner of Hammond Highway at Lake Avenue was the creation of Joe Pacaccio, a long-time New Orleans restaurateur. He opened at a time when the restaurant community was expanding and innovating. He also had the good luck (or sense) to choose a spot that had come to be cool. Baby Boomers, in their twenties and thirties, loved the worn-out antique buildings of Bucktown’s old fishing community. They were also ready to try something new.
Carmine’s was half seafood, half Italian. It was the former endeavor that drew the crowds. In its heyday, you always had to wait for a table at Carmine’s. The strongest people magnets were two unique dishes. One was good and new. The other would become permanently associated with the mere mention of the name Carmine’s.
I don’t think Carmine’s was the first restaurant in town to serve soft-shell crawfish, a new item from the farms in Cajun country. It was a mind-over-matter matter. When soft-shell crawfish were good, they tasted like crawfish. Most of the time, they were like some anonymous seafood. And they were expensive–about a dollar per bug. But the craze was on (compare with today’s pork belly fad), and everybody wanted them. Joe Pacaccio served them sauteed, with a creamy, pink, spicy sauce.
The immortal Carmine’s dish was the seafood-stuffed artichoke. The name describes is fully: it was a steamed artichoke into whose leaves were pieces of fried oysters, catfish, shrimp and crawfish (not soft-shell). In the center of the big prickly artichoke was a creamy dill sauce. People went wild over this, with good reason. It really was terrific, and remained a specialty until Carmine’s closed its last location.
While Carmine’s was in Bucktown, it was a phenom, serving an uncommonly large range of food for such a small restaurant. During a little-remembered period in the 1990s, Joe even opened for breakfast. On that menu was the first and only version of grillades and grits I’ve ever encountered that was actually grilled. (Most of the time, the “grillades” are either braised or sauteed.) This may also have been the best example of grillades I ever ate.
The small size of the restaurant ultimately held back its potential. Joe opened a second location in Metairie, in the area adjacent to places like Houston’s and Chili’s. When his lease ran out in Bucktown, he left the old place behind and moved to the new one. He remained there until that lease expired in 2012, at which time he retired from the restaurant business. I still get calls from fans who wonder where he (and, more important, his seafood-stuffed artichoke) are these days.