Bucktown: 200 Metairie-Hammond Hwy.
Metairie: 4101 Veterans Blvd.
The popularity of Joe Pacaccio’s restaurant in its heyday was a little hard to fathom. It wasn’t the food, because most people who ate there stuck to either the basic Italian dishes (for which there were many better places in Metairie) or one or two dishes in the seafood department–about which more momentarily. It also had something to do with the gargantuan size of the portions here, particularly in light of the moderate-to-low prices.
A few years into its Bucktown run (it was in the building on the corner of Lake Avenue and Hammond Highway, a site of many other restaurants both before and after Carmine’s), Joe added two unique dishes to his menu.
The first of these was soft-shell crawfish. It was a pure novelty–raising and processing the soft mudbugs was time-consuming and expensive. Carmine’s did them better than any other restaurant. The seasoning and the buttery, garlicky sauce were just right for these tender things. They didn’t last long. At their best, soft-shell crawfish tasted like crawfish. More often (except at Carmine’s) they tasted like generic fried seafood. And they cost about a dollar apiece, which was real money in the 1980s.
The other Carmine’s specialty was seafood-stuffed artichokes. It was the best and most original dish in the house. It lasted through the relocation of the restaurant to Metairie (where Bobby Hebert’s Restaurant is now), and was the signature dish of Carmine’s to the very end.
Stuffed artichokes are usually nothing more than an excuse to eat a lot of garlic-butter-soaked bread crumbs. At Carmine’s, the prickly vegetable is hollowed out and filled with fried seafood–oysters, shrimp, fish, and crawfish. All this bounty is abetted with a dill-aromatic cream sauce. It was rather rich, and very, very good. Nobody else has ever tried to serve it. Since Carmine’s closed, the number of people who ask me about the artichoke continue to grow.
The menu went on to include some more-than-decent stuffed seafoods, as well as big fillets of fresh fish prepared numerous ways. While I can’t call the seafood delicate, I will say that it’s pretty imaginative, generally cooked to order, and served in ample if not obscene quantities.
For a very brief period in Bucktown, Joe Pacaccio opened Carmine’s for breakfast. Almost everything was made in house, including all the breads. It was pretty good. And one part of the menu was distinctive. Carmine’s served the only true-to-its-name grillades and grits I have ever encountered. The word “grillade” means in French “that which is grilled.” But no version of the classic Creole breakfast dish in my experience was ever cooked that way. Usually, the veal is braised for hours. Sometimes it’s panneed. Carmine’s chef had the veal slices on the grill, coming to the table with grill marks. It was not just good but distinctive.
Breakfast never caught on at Carmine’s, but that was the only failure I can remember from Joe Pacaccio’s hand. When he closed the restaurant, he said he might get into the catering business. As far as I know, he hasn’t done that. He’s old enough to retire, but a lot of his regular customers would love to have him and his stuffed artichoke again some day.
One more memory: it was almost mandatory that you order a loaf of Carmine’s the spinach bread (a lot of garlic and butter were on there, too) as an initial nibble. A cheap thrill, but an original one. Not much for dessert. Service, pressed by the crowds to turn tables, sometimes approached rudeness. But nobody seemed to mind much.