There is a small place close to the bridge in Mandeville that has been a number of things, and may have originally been a fast food place. But we have fond memories of it, mostly as the French restaurant called The Paris Bistro from the 1990s, where Tom took Mary Leigh as a little girl. They had some Daddy dates there, mostly feasting on the housemade french fries, when no one else was doing that.
After that it became the Sesame Inn, operated by an affable man from China named Steve. At first we wondered about the wisdom of setting up shop almost right next door to Trey Yuen, everyone’s favorite Chinese place since the 1970s.
Steve was undaunted, and managed to carve out a very loyal and enthusiastic clientele with his cozy place, great Chinese food, and very welcoming service. The place is very small, but takeout business was very strong. After ten or more years in business, Steve had a little health issue and no family interested in continuing, so he sold it to a young couple from Baton Rouge. In no time the place closed.
Meanwhile in 2008, across town, Ceasar had set up shop in a strip mall in Mandeville. The food at Ceasar’s Ristorante was classic Italian as is found in so many Italian restaurants in this country. It was neither especially good nor especially bad, but just rather ordinary. The most distinctive thing about Ceaser’s was his bread, a spectacular loaf of rustic Italian bread, with a dense crumb and hard crust. Smoky brown on the outside and chewy on the inside, this bread is so good it is hard to stop eating it.
Evidently a lot of other patrons felt the same way about the bread, and probably better about the rest of the food, because Ceaser’s enjoyed about a 10-year run in the Mandeville strip mall. Eventually Caesar closed the place to move, but the move never happened. He was out of sight for awhile, and suddenly the little building by the bridge got new life again when Caesar's Ristorante moved in.
That was four years ago, and every time we saw it we resolved to check in there and at least see if he was still doing that great bread.
Saturday night we did it. I was curious to see how the place had made the transition from Chinese to Italian. There is a large wall ornament of stone that looks like something you’d see in Italy, and the hostess foyer has a slate wall which seems new, but everything else is the same from the Sesame Inn days, including, unfortunately, the carpet.
The menu is as manageably small as it is anywhere else in the new COVID world. We asked about the delicious bread and were brought four warm slices with some premium olive oil.
Tom was interested in bruschetta, but I convinced him to go with the Mix Crostini. There are six pieces to this, two bruschetta, two tapenade, and two overly-complicated brie, mushroom, garlic, and shaved parmesan piled high and drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar. All of this on crostini made from the delicious house bread, which Ceaser told me is called Filone di Como. A filone is a cousin of the French baguette, but more rustic, fatter, and a little more chewy. In my opinion, much preferable to the baguette, though both are yeast breads.
A filone is far more dense and more pleasing to eat, because it is, frankly, a workout. Caesar’s filone is very salty, which is not a problem for me because I love salt, but it is really salty.
The delicious house filone makes a divine crostini. The bruschetta was drizzled with great olive oil but was not especially garlicky. The tasteless tomatoes ubiquitous in most restaurants tomatoes were chopped to standard bruschetta size and had Italian seasoning, but this was far from the best bruschetta I’ve had, despite the crostini. The tapenade was generous and very good. This was not the dark purple color I’m used to seeing in tapenade, so I’m assuming it was made with a combination of olives. It is impossible to crush olives en masse and mix it with olive oil and have it be anything other than sensational. The third crostini was just a lot. Again, here are all great ingredients: Roasted garlic. Brie. Grilled mushrooms. Shaved parmesan. Aged balsamic vinegar. But together, they taste like nothing, to quote the late great Dick Brennan, Sr.
For entrees, Tom ordered chicken piccata and spaghetti EVO. I had lasagna.
The lasagna came in a bowl and was frankly, a mess. Wide egg noodles, clumps of ground meat, and a lot of cheese floated in a Rosa sauce, though the menu described it as bechamel and marinara, but together they became a Rosa sauce that seemed intentional. When Ceasar came to the table to say hello he explained that the lasagna is usually more a solid block, but a large lasagna order for that day didn’t allow them to make it long enough ahead to sit a day and settle before serving. This was desperately in need of salt. And other seasoning.
Tom fared much better with his entree choice. The spaghetti EVO was mostly just that. This too needed salt and more olive oil, as well as italian seasoning and more parmesan. The grilled chicken was the star of this dish. It was tender but seared just right, Chicken perfection. It had an intense citrus, caper and garlic butter sauce on top.
All the other tables seemed happy with their choices. Four years later than our last visit, it remains exactly how we remember it: a true Mom and Pop classic Italian place serving familiar red sauces with pasta, roasted meat and grilled fish.
And possibly the best housemade bread out there.