Extinct Restaurants

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.

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  1. Bonnie on July 2, 2015

    Would you have a recipe for Carmine’s Dill Sauce? Also, heard after they closed that they were looking for another place to open? Any updates?

    • Tom Fitzmorris on July 2, 2015

      Sorry. . . Carmine’s owner never let that one out of the bag. If I ware trying to reproduce it I’d start with white wine, onions and celery, reduce it, straining it, then add the dill, heavy cream, salt and pepper.

      Tastefully yours,
      Tom Fitzmorris

  2. Barbara Montanaro on September 24, 2017

    I am trying to find the recipe for crawfish monica from Carmines restaurant in New Orleans

    Crawfish Pasta
    I’m pleased to know a few people for whom famous local dishes are named. Monica Hilzim and her husband Pete have a company that makes pasta sauces, among other things. “Crawfish Monica” is their registered trademark for the star in their stable. It’s one of the most popular dishes at the Jazz Festival, among other places, and I get so many requests for the recipe that I developed my own version. It gets its distinctive pink-orange color from Creole seasoning. I add a little Cognac at the beginning, and a little tarragon at the end. If I have crawfish stock around, I add some of that, too. Whether this is really crawfish Monica, I don’t know: Monica won’t divulge the authentic recipe. But it is more than a little good.

    2 Tbs. butter
    1/2 cup finely chopped green onions
    1 clove garlic, finely chopped
    1 oz. Cognac or brandy
    1/2 cup crawfish stock (optional)
    1 1/2 Tbs. salt-free Creole seasoning
    1 tsp. salt
    1/4 tsp. dried or fresh tarragon
    1 pint whipping cream
    2 lb. crawfish tails
    1 lb. bowtie or other pasta, cooked al dente and drained

    1. Heat the butter till it bubbles in a large stainless-steel skillet. Add the green onions and garlic and cook until the garlic is fragrant.
    2. Add the Cognac to the pan. Warm it and either boil it off or flame it. (Very carefully.)
    3. If you have crawfish stock, add it and bring it to a boil. Reduce it by half.

    4. Add the Creole seasoning, salt, tarragon, and cream. Bring the pan to a boil while agitating the contents carefully to blend. Reduce the cream by about a third (about three minutes over medium-high heat). Then add the crawfish tails and cook until heated through.
    5. Add the cooked, drained pasta to the pan and toss with the sauce to distribute all the ingredients and sauce uniformly. Serve immediately, garnished with finely-chopped green onions. (Resist the temptation to add Parmesan or Romano cheese.)

    Serves four.

    As for the way they cooked it at Carmine’s. . . well, finding recipes from restaurants that have been out of business for years is not easy.