T. Pittari's

Written by Tom Fitzmorris February 01, 2012 18:34 in

Extinct Restaurants

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T. Pittari's
Broadmoor: 4200 South Claiborne Avenue

Whenever a discussion of lost restaurants gets started, T. Pittari's inevitably comes up. Often, the people who ask about it or relate their memories of the place can't remember its name. But they very well remember the big restaurant with the mosaics of lobsters and beef cattle next to the doors, the neon signs, and the wild game.

Especially the wild game. They served hippopotamus, didn't they?

The main reason T. Pittari's is widely remembered over twenty years after it closed is that Tom Pittari, Sr. was perhaps the most skillful and studied restaurant promoter in the history of the local business. In many ways, he was ahead of his time. He learned what pushed people's buttons, and how to push them.

He also found out that if people get excited about a dish, they would pay prices way out of line with the intrinsic value of the food involved. That's why a lot of people who remember T. Pittari's never actually dined there.

However, the restaurant couldn't have become famous if it hadn't been good. Its best dishes really were as memorable good as Tom Pittari said they were. Well, almost, anyway.

The funny thing was that the specialties for which T. Pittari's was known--wild game and lobster--were in fact the worst and most overpriced dishes in the house.

Pittari's was around a long time. Tom's uncle Anthony opened it on the downtown river corner of Washington and Magazine. It moved to South Claiborne in the late 1940s, taking up a whole block. Especially at night, you couldn't drive past without taking a long look. And Claiborne Avenue was the main route through town in those pre-interstate days.

Tom Pittari advertised his restaurant heavily in every way he could think of. Among his more innovative gambits was giving cab drivers who brought visitors from the French Quarter an extra tip.

Tom had a good story to sell. His famous Maine lobsters were kept alive in a tank of chilled water right in the dining room. You could pick the lobster that would be cooked for you. He was the first in town to do any of that. Pittari's was the pioneer, and to this day the mere mention of lobster brings Pittari's to the mind of anyone who was around back then. As well it should. In its heyday, T. Pittari's sold two thousand lobsters a month.

Lobster was boiled, or broiled it with the head filled with seafood stuffing. (That was cheaper, because it didn't require live lobsters.) The signature lobster was a unique concoction called lobster Kadobster. I had the Kadobster often enough to remember a) that it had a rich, yellow-tinged, somewhat spicy sauce, and 2) it was unreasonably expensive. (I'm asked now and then for the recipe for Kadobster, but have never been able to locate it.)

The other big-time nonconformity at T. Pittari's was wild game. At its peak, T. Pittari's hippopotamus steaks and lion, among other exotic meats. When I got around to dining at Pittari's in the 1970s, endangered-species concerns whittled the list down to venison, bear, and buffalo. The buffalo was the best--like a lean beef steak. The venison tasted like dark veal. The bear was nasty in both appearance and flavor. Prices for all this were into double digits, at a time when a steak at Ruth's Chris was six dollars.

The best strategy, though, was to forget about all of the above and pore over two other sections of the menu. The Italian food--and there was as much of that as on any straight Italian restaurant's entire menu--was terrific. The red sauces were irresistible, the portions enormous (I don't see how anyone ever finished their lasagna), and the prices within the range of normal.

The Creole dishes were better still. The dish I remember most fondly was crab bisque, made with a medium roux, a good bit of claw crabmeat, and a crab boulette that the waiter would bring in a separate dish and plop into the soup right in front of you.

Tom Pittari no doubt saw the crowds waiting to eat barbecue shrimp at Pascal's Manale (a near neighbor). He developed his own excellent version. They baked very fine oysters Rockefeller and Bienville, broiled fish and meats with interesting sauces, and fried seafood well. Really, Pittari's was a respectable all-around Creole restaurant. But nobody seems to remember that.

No matter what you ordered, you had to order carefully. The table d'hote lunches and dinners were good values, but if you deviated from the meals as listed, the a la carte prices kicked in, and the cost would double. (I'm not exaggerating.) If you had oysters on the half shell at the bar, you had to note whether you wanted regular oysters or "special selects" (at a higher price). Anything that had a gourmet ring had a gourmet price. Flaming desserts were for those intent on blowing a wad of money.

I think it's that last matter that caused locals to fall out of love with T. Pittari's, especially in its later years. They overheated the concept and pushed too hard to maximize check averages. New Orleanians can spot that from a mile away, and did.

T. Pittari's was ahead of its time in one other way. Flooding killed it a quarter-century before Katrina. The May 3, 1978 flood and the April 13, 1980 flood--caused not by hurricanes but by extraordinary rainfalls and inadequate drainage systems--put two feet of water into Pittari's. The building was at ground level in one of the lowest parts in the city. Other floods followed to ruin the carpets and furnishings a second and third time within just a few years.

Tom Pittari, Jr. (who was running the place by then) gave up, sold the property, and moved the restaurant to Mandeville. The North Shore in 1980 was not the place for a restaurant like this, and it closed in a year or so, never to return. The grand Claiborne restaurant was torn down, replaced by a Wendy's raised above flood level.

But the fame of T. Pittari's lobsters and wild game just kept on going.