Riverbend: 7839 St. Charles Ave.
Over the years, seven restaurants named Compagno’s opened and closed around New Orleans. Most were Uptown. Two were on Fern Street. Some family connections existed among them, but it didn’t show up in the food. At least not at the three Compagno’s in business when I started covering the restaurant scene. All were neighborhood cafes, mixing New Orleans and Italian dishes. One Compagno’s was on the corner of State and Magazine, where WOW is now. Another was on Fern at Panola, two blocks from where I lived in the early 1970s. After a couple of meals there I never went back.
The best of the Compagno’s—on St. Charles Avenue at Fern, two blocks from South Carrollton—survived many years after all the others were gone. It not only had good food, but one of the most personable chefs in that segment of the biz. Sal Compagno took the restaurant over from his parents, but it was his wife Maria who made Compagno’s a great place to eat.
Compagno’s menu had two specialties, and Maria was adept at both. The Italian food was the Sicilian-inspired New Orleans kind, but with a distinction. Maria always made her own pasta for things like ravioli, at a time when almost no other restaurant did that. Everything in her kitchen was made from scratch, from the sauces to the fantastically garlicky, herbal olive salad on the muffulettas.
The other emphasis was seafood. Compagno’s served as much variety there as any local seafood restaurant. A sign in the dining room declared that no seafood was seasoned or breaded—let alone cooked—until someone ordered it. That was very clear in what came to the table. It was always golden brown, greaseless, fresh, and light.
The dining room looked almost exactly like Vincent’s does now: a brick divider ran through the center of the room, dividing the bar (where there were always a few regulars having a drink or a beer) from the tables.
Compagno’s was inexpensive and generous—a combination of merits that made it a perennial favorite among Tulane and Loyola students and faculty. It was particularly busy on Sunday nights, when it was one of the few restaurants open Uptown.
No matter when you went, Sal and Maria were there. In a way, they still are. Maria was very pleased to sell the restaurant to Vincent Catalanotto. Who, she says, continued to run the kind of restaurant she could be proud of, even with a different style of food and service. She loved her restaurant and its regulars, and still talks about them all the time. It took a few years, and it’s hard to find, but her cookbook is an accurate rendering of the kind of food Maria Compagno cooked.
This is one of 122 reviews of fondly-remembered but extinct restaurants from Lost Restaurants Of New Orleans, just published by Pelican. It’s available in bookstores all around town, and full of photos, graphics, menus, and memorabilia.