The history of New Orleans cuisine usually begins with the Grand Dame restaurants of the French Quarter. They live up to their moniker. Mostly French restaurants - Antoine's, Arnaud's, Galatoire's, Broussard's, Tujague's - befitting our French heritage, established mostly as the 1800s gave way to the 1900s.
Two major historic developments changed restaurants. One of them was World War I, which caused a lot of Europeans--particularly Italians--to migrate to the United States. New Orleans was an especially attractive target for Italians, who understood the ins and outs of ships. But for the many who could make the trip, rewards were waiting in New Orleans.
There were Italian connections to this city aplenty. The New Orleans Opera, for example, was the most attractive theater in America. (That's what the New Orleans Opera says, anyway.) Quite a few professional singers took advantage of the openings. They moved to New Orleans, and some also got extra work in kitchens here.
Cooks came to New Orleans and quickly got jobs in such number that the French Quarter began to be called "The Italian Quarter." In 1900, right next door to Galatoire's on Bourbon Street, a full-fledged Italian chef was cooking food like that of his mother. Also in that scene was a soprano opera singer and a tenor, here singing professionally. So the “Italian Quarter” label was quite accurate, particularly in the heavy commerce area around Jackson Square. Also at that time In the early 1900s, next door to what is now Muriel's, a three-story plant made immense amounts of macaroni. (That's what spaghetti was called until sometime in the 1990s when it got its modern name-pasta.)
When World War I ended, things changed for many New Orleanians and Italian singers as well. Many restaurants remained, both the American and French kind. New Italian restaurants offered live music, too. They were so successful that existing restaurants often switched over to Italian. But that was about to change, too, when New Orleans jazz music appeared in the West End. There we found Louis Armstrong and friends, and a new kind of music and food were there together.
But before Louis Armstrong slammed on to the scene, Frank Manale opened his eponymous restaurant in an old grocery store in 1913. The menu was first-generation New Orleans Italian. His nephew Pascal Radosta bought it some years later (hence the unique name). He got to work on the food, a blend of Italian food and New Orleans seafood. Two brothers joined him in the business, which resulted in a big family tree from which a third and fourth generation would carry the traditions into the 21st century. Brothers Bob, Sandy, and Mark DeFelice and sister Ginny rescued the family business from a dark period about thirty years ago, remaining faithful stewards until the papers were signed transferring ownership last November 12th.
Having entered its second century, Pascal's Manale is more than old enough for its Italian roots to be thoroughly hybridized with Creole cooking. That happy blend gave rise to one of the city's most distinctive and best dishes: barbecue shrimp, now served by just about every restaurant that serves shrimp. Despite such a venerable past, it remains more like a neighborhood hangout than the major culinary landmark that it is. Families of customers have dined here for generations, table-hopping to talk with friends who may well have been dining here last time as well.
The tables here have always been filled with people who were well-known all around anywhere in New Orleans--for reasons of political and business power, or for entertainment. They came for the uniqueness of the place, and its delicious food-a distinctive blend of Creole, French, Italian cooking, with a touch of Uptown-American flavor. It had strayed far past its grocery roots.
Those roots go deep in this community. My deceased friend and wine expert Max Zander told me a story many years ago. He said that when he was a kid he delivered sandwiches by bicycle from Manale's to a neighbor. That's the first of many interesting anecdotes. There are countless others I have heard about the place. One hardly knows where to start, but a good one concerns the restaurant's most famous dish. It's well known that the BBQ Shrimp was an accident.
In 1955, a customer asked Pascal Radosta about a dish he had in Chicago but couldn't describe well. Radosta took a shot at cooking it and wound up with a new dish along the lines of shrimp scampi, but with a much more peppery sauce. He gave it the misleading name barbecue shrimp. It quickly became the restaurant's signature dish, as well as one of the greatest of Creole dishes of all time. Every restaurateur and diner in this city is fully aware of that, which is why it is copied so often, usually to lesser effect.
If you always liked Pascal's Manale and its food, you're in luck. It's still the same after more than a hundred years. If you took a bad first (or thirty-eighth) impression at some time in the past, whatever caused it is probably still in place, too. A good slogan would be: "Pascal's Manale: "It Is What It Is." Fortunately, a very large number of people (including me) like what it is, and many of those either dine there on a regular schedule or hit the place every time they come to town. Manale's has fans from all over the map. That’s one of its greatest strengths: it attracts tourists, yet feels intensely local.
As I write these words in December 2019, the proprietorship of this local institution has left the hands of the original family for the first time. Though unthinkable, it had been talked about among the four siblings for a long time, as they turned down offer after offer to sell. But this year one finally appeared that seemed like a good one to keep Manale’s spirit what it had always been: a traditional Sicilian-Italian but distinctly New Orleans eatery serving delicious food to a clientele of appreciative local regulars.
We dropped by last week to check in. Thomas was there at his post, happily shucking his oysters, the first impression anyone gets of Manale’s. This man exudes happiness and inner peace. He is a local treasure, chatting up customers like the world’s best restaurant greeter.
The second greeter is Carmen Provenzano, the new owner. It was his offer, backed by his now-deceased uncle Ray Brandt that the family accepted. The four siblings knew Carmen from his early days in the restaurant business, when he came to work in 1989 as a dishwasher at Manale’s. He went to Delgado Culinary School, with a resume that includes old Bart’s at the lakefront and New Orleans Food And Spirits, among others.
The restaurant the night we visited was filled with locals, as usual. Families, and couples, and friends meeting friends. Our waiter was one of the old school guys, the kind who have made a great living and loved working as a professional waiter, happily guiding us through our order. We asked about the changes. He shrugged and said, a little freshening up. That’s all. From what we saw, that's exactly right.
Carmen dropped by the table to check on us. After chatting about food in general, and the new crabcake he’s mighty proud of (pictured), he excitedly told us about the short ribs that were nearly done in the oven, and the mashed potatoes he’d be serving with it. “That’s what people want to eat, “ he declared.
We think he’s right. The family thought he was right. And so will you. Manale’s is safe for the next century and beyond.
Note: On the way out the security guard (with an unbelievable baritone voice) and I got into an impromptu set of Christmas carols in the parking lot. Even Mary Ann was charmed. She's right when she shook her head and smiled as she said, "Only in New Orleans."
1838 Napoleon Ave New Orleans