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Road trips to Mosca’s and Middendorf’s

If you’re in New Orleans for several days leading up to the Sugar Bowl, you need to get in your car, get out of the city and have meals at two of the region’s most notable restaurants — Middendorf’s in Manchac and Mosca’s in Westwego.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Middendorf’s was opened in 1934 by a couple of German immigrants, Josie and Louis Middendorf. The restaurant remained in the family until September 2006 when it was sold to a German-born chef, Horst Pfeifer, and his wife, Karen. The Pfeifers had operated a New Orleans restaurant known as Bella Luna that was lost in Hurricane Katrina.

Though the food was great at Bella Luna, it’s fortunate that the Pfeifers did not try to replicate that menu at Middendorf’s. Traditions are important, and the Pfeifers wisely kept the traditional menu, including the thin-fried catfish that Southern Living once described as “possibly the best fried fish in the world.”

Here’s how the Middendorf’s website describes the restaurant’s start: “They often say that blessings come disguised, and so it was for Louis and Josie Middendorf. Louis Middendorf lost his job in the 1929 stock market crash so he and Josie moved to Manchac, where Josie’s mother and two brothers lived. In Manchac, like most of the swamp residents, they fished and hunted for a living. Fortunately for Louis, as he was not very good at fishing and hunting, in 1934 all veterans of World War I received a $500 bonus from the U.S. government. With this and a $500 loan co-signed by a former mayor of New Orleans, T. Semmes Walmsley, Louis and Josie opened their cafe.

“Louis found his calling as he was excellent at talking and tending bar. Mama Josie, as her granddaughter called her, used her personal recipes and did all the cooking. Mama Josie was the one to come up with the now famous thin-cut catfish. It was a combination of the two that brought the customers back.

“Josie’s son, Richard Smith, and his wife, Helen, took over operations in 1947. In 1966, Richard had Ragusa & Sons of Hammond completely renovate, modernize and enlarge the kitchen, adding a much-needed walk-in cooler and freezer. He added a private dining room to the north side of the building and upgraded the other dining rooms and bathrooms. At the same time Suzy, their oldest daughter, began working in the restaurant.

“In 1970, Intersate 10 opened from Metairie to LaPlace, and business skyrocketed. In 1981, Interstate 55 opened from LaPlace to Ponchatoula. Overcrowding on the weekends became a serious problem, so in 1972, Dick built a second restaurant two lots from the original restaurant. At that time, there was a restaurant where the middle parking lot is today called Ship Ahoy Restaurant & Bar.”

Archie Manning and his famous sons are said to be regulars at Middendorf’s during the football offseason.

The Pfeifers have done an excellent job since taking over the restaurant from Suzy and her husband, Joey Lamonte. They built a waterfront deck for dining in 2008 along with a sandpit for children.

Middendorf’s survived Hurricane Katrina, but Hurricane Ike in September 2008 caused a 10-foot storm surge that drove water into Pass Manchac. The original building sustained extensive damage.

The restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. You reach it from New Orleans by taking Interstate 10 west and then Interstate 55 north. It’s about 40 miles from New Orleans, between Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain. Pass Manchac, the seven-mile natural canal that connects the two lakes, is just to the south. The Amite River is just to the north. The two lakes and the two streams form what’s known as Jones Island, which was a cypress swamp until being depleted by loggers between 1897 and 1952.

While you’re out in the car, cross the famed Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River and have dinner at Mosca’s Restaurant at 4137 U.S. Highway 90 West in the New Orleans suburb of Westwego. It serves dinner each Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m.

Mosca’s was featured in a Nov. 22 New Yorker story by Calvin Trillin.

Here’s part of what Trillin wrote: “From Highway 90, Mosca’s looks roughly the same as it did when it opened in 1946 — a small white clapboard building on a deserted stretch of double-lane highway 30 or 40 minutes from the center of New Orleans. When … Provino Mosca, who had previously operated a restaurant in Chicago Heights, Ill., opened for business that year, he moved his family into a few rooms in the back.

“The dining area of Mosca’s always seemed the same: One room, as you entered, had a bar and a few tables and a jukebox, heavy on Louis Prima. A larger dining room was off to the right. The proprietorship of Mosca’s has changed only with the generations, and there has always been a Mosca in the kitchen. When Provino Mosca died, in 1962, the cooking was taken over by his daughter, Mary, and eventually her husband, a former Louisiana oysterman named Vincent Marconi.”

When Mosca’s was opened, the building was owned by Carlos Marcello, who was a regular customer. It’s still owned by Marcello’s son. The family says the old rumor that Provino Mosca was a chef for Al Capone back in Chicago isn’t true.

“Hundreds of thousands have driven by Mosca’s and believed it to be a low-down roadside bar or cafe,” New Orleans food expert Tom Fitzmorris writes. “Which is what it looks like, all right. Just as many people know that it’s a matchless source of lusty, unique Italian cooking and a gathering place — believe it or not — for the elite. The building that is now Mosca’s was originally the headquarters of 1940s power broker (to put it mildly) and gourmet Carlos Marcello. Provino Mosca and his family cooked to Marcello’s liking, so he set them up — complete with living quarters — in this isolated roadhouse on Highway 90. There Mosca’s has been ever since, attracting eaters from all over the world — and, still, political and economic strongmen of Jefferson Parish.

“Now in its third generation, Mosca’s keeps serving its distinctive food. After Katrina, the building received a renovation, including a bigger kitchen and a bit more dining space.”

The essential dishes here include the crab salad, oysters Mosca (baked with bread crumbs, olive oil and garlic), shrimp Mosca (enormous shrimp cooked with olive oil and garlic, chicken grande (roasted in pieces with potatoes, rosemary and olive oil) and Italian sausage.

“You only need at most three entrees per four people,” Fitzmorris writes. “Mosca’s serves family style, and the waitress will tell you when you’ve ordered too much. Make a reservation but know that you may still wait quite awhile in the bar anyway. Very important: Bring plenty of cash. They don’t take cards or checks.

“Most people who dine there eat the same meal: marinated crabmeat (as a salad or in the shell), the oysters, the very different Italian shrimp, chicken grande or cacciatore or just plain roasted, spaghetti bordelaise. A really big table might have a filet mignon or two or some Italian sausage. Much of this is enlivened by the unfettered use of garlic, rosemary and olive oil.”

In a 2006 New York Times article, Pableaux Johnson wrote: “Dining as Mosca’s has always involved a little adventure. Leaving behind the legendary Creole restaurants of New Orleans, people would set out on a 40-minute pilgrimage to a ramshackle roadhouse thick with mystique and earthy Italian cuisine. For many connoisseurs the trip was a sacred family tradition. Heading west over the Mississippi, the pilgrims felt city noise give way to swamp sounds as they approached this temple of garlic on the edge of a primeval Louisiana bayou.

“During multihour waits at the bar, convivial patrons swilled Chianti by the bottle as they told, retold and re-retold tales of the crime boss Carlos Marcello, a regular during the height of his power. … Waitresses cut through the blue tobacco haze with oversize platters of chicken a la grande (pan fried and soaked in garlic-spiked olive oil) and red-sauced pasta as they whisked from the tiny kitchen to the dining room.”

Road trips to both Mosca’s and Middendorf’s will be well worth your time. If you go, report back to me please on how you much you enjoyed the experience.

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