7839 St. Charles Ave.
Within the reach of my memory are three restaurants named Compagno’s. I’ve been told that there was yet a fourth. All them were Uptown. Two were on Fern Street. (What are the chances?)
A family connection existed among the various Compagno’s restaurants, but that didn’t show up in the food. All the restaurants were neighborhood cafes with a mix of New Orleans and Italian food, but the menus and recipes were different.
One Compagno’s was on the corner of State and Magazine, where Reginelli’s is now. The least known (and least good) was on the lake-downtown corner of Fern and Panola. It was across Fern from what would become the Bright Star, then Riccobono’s Panola Street Café (which it is now). I knew this Compagno’s well because I lived two blocks away.
But the best of the three was the Compagno’s on the corner of Fern and St. Charles–the place that now houses Vincent’s.
Sal Compagno took over the St. Charles restaurant from his parents. He and his wife Maria (who I run into in the supermarket more often than seems possible) occupied the kitchen. The dining room looked almost exactly like Vincent’s does now: a brick divider ran through the center of the room, dividing the bar (where there were always a few regulars having a drink or a beer) from the tables.
Compagno’s menu had two specialties, and Maria was adept at both. The Italian food was the Sicilian-inspired New Orleans kind, but with a distinction we didn’t see very often. For example, Maria always made her own pasta for things like ravioli. No other restaurant did that back then. Everything in her kitchen was made from scratch, from the sauces to the fantastically garlicky, herbal olive salad on the muffulettas. Fresh basil made them amazing.
Maria’s other emphasis was on seafood. Compagno’s served as much variety there as any local seafood restaurant. A sign in the dining room made the claim that no seafood is so much as seasoned or breaded–let alone cooked–until someone ordered it. That was very clear in what came to the table. It was always golden brown, greaseless, fresh, and light.
As neighborhood restaurants of that era were, Compagno’s was inexpensive and generous. It was a perennial favorite among Tulane and Loyola students and faculty, and very busy on Sunday nights, when it was one of the few restaurants Uptown that stayed open. Vincent’s inherited that clientele, and much of what I say here about Compagno’s is still true at Vincent’s.
No matter when you went, Sal and Maria were there. In a way, they still are. Maria says she’s proud of the restaurant Vincent operates, even with a different style of food and service. She loved that place and its regulars, and still talks about them all the time.
Maria Compagno wrote a cookbook some years ago. It appears and disappears. If you ever see one, buy it.