Until recently, people from New Orleans did not cross the lake to dine, with one exception. Savvy diners have been making the trip to inconvenient Lacombe to visit the legendary mecca of Sicilian Italian deliciousness, Sal & Judy’s, since the word got out decades ago.
Joe Impastato and his younger brother Sal honed their skills right on the family farm in Palermo, Sicily, skills that would later bring them fame and fortune in their adopted land. It was there that they made cheese from the family’s goats, sauce from the tomatoes they grew, and wine from the grapes in their vineyard.
As two young guys arriving in America, they made their way to New Orleans following tales of an emerging culinary scene. They worked in the kitchens and bars around town like La Louisiane, the Absinthe House, and others, and worked with mentors like Chris Keragiorgou. Sal & Judy’s opened in the late 1970s and was an immediate hit. Joe Impastato opened Impastato’s in Metairie, and the Impastato name became synonymous with delicious Sicilian-inspired New Orleans food.
In recent years Joe’s wife and daughter opened Impastato’s Cellars in Madisonville serving the same great food in more modern and glamorous surroundings. We don’t travel to the Southshore as much now, and we’ve lost our loving feeling for The Cellars, so we recently dropped in on Sal & Judy’s.
It is difficult to get a reservation here, even after all these years, but we grabbed a cancellation. Last time we were at Sal & Judy’s, we sat in an overspill room that felt that way. This time we sat in the original dining room, and it was warm and inviting in an Old World Italian way.
Service was bustling. This place keeps the staff hopping. There are always a lot of people here, eating a lot of food and drinking wine. It is a happy place of gustatory delights.
We sat next to a table of ten exuberantly going through course after course. Large veal chops brimming over with mushrooms and plates of pasta kept the waiters busy all evening. Our little table of two was an anomaly. This place is a party.
Tom got his usual starter in Impastato world, Fettuccine Alfredo, which he declares superior to the original in Rome.This night the noodles were much wider than the other two places with the Impastato name, and he prefers the thinner version. But everything else was essentially the same, but I could swear there was crushed red pepper in this. It had a kick.
I didn’t notice any crushed red pepper in the Aglio Olio, which I ordered mainly to see how they did it. I have a recurring conversation on the show about the proper ingredients of this dish, one of my favorites anywhere. Garlic, olive oil, and crushed red pepper are the simple combination in which the pasta is tossed. This version seemed only to have garlic, which was not cooked long enough for it to mellow. This was disappointing.
Also mildly disappointing was the oyster artichoke soup I ordered on a whim. It was a little gloppy, as most soups in the Impastato brand tend to be. The flavors were fine, but the oysters cooked into chewy things, an unpleasant characteristic I am finding everywhere these days. Maybe it’s just the oysters?
All entrees come with a house salad, a generous small pile of very fresh pretty greens in a light vinaigrette. The presentation of this salad is a little odd. Croutons are brought separately, as well as Bleu cheese, and a lot of both.
I declined both extras, and the salad was superb all by itself.
We split an entree, a signature of the Impastato brand. It was pan sauteed trout invisible beneath a lemon cream sauce containing shrimp, crabmeat and mushrooms plentiful enough to create a mound off the plate.
The Aglio Olio was definitely not interesting enough to eat on its own, so I took some and swished it around the edges of the entree plate to collect some of the cream sauce. That worked rather well, and I ate the shrimp, crabmeat, and pasta while Tom had the fish from beneath it all. He’s not much of a shrimp person, so this arrangement worked perfectly. The dish came with a small serving of green beans that were unremarkable in every way. They were green, edible, and there. The buttery coating made them better, but only slightly.
Looking around the dining room at some of the food going to other tables, I realized that the lasagna was indeed like the other two locations. Unlike most lasagnas out there, this one has a Rosa sauce and peas. It is otherwise very light with a cloudlike texture, many layers of very thin homemade pasta and ricotta cheese aplenty. A lot of fried eggplant in this dining room, which they do well. Signature crab claws and crabmeat au gratin as excellent as ever, calamari, Italian sausage and peppers and seafood fried with cream sauces like the one we had.
This is the best Impastato experience to be had. There are subtle differences in food, decor, and experience, but this is the one we will go to in the future, when we are craving the Impastato brand. It is indeed inconvenient, but that will be a minor negative, as so many others have decided through the decades.