By Larry Olmsted, Special for USA TODAY
Rosetti’s Old Biloxi Café is a small part of the large retail market and distribution center for Quality Produce & Seafood. Larry Olmsted, for USA TODAY
The scene: When going out for seafood, dining on the water, especially on a coast famed for its fishing, is always a good bet. If you want to put the odds of having a great meal with the best-quality fish even more squarely in your favor, it’s best to go straight to the source, and Rosetti’s Old Biloxi Café hits all these high notes in Mississippi. It is a very casual eatery located within the large retail and distribution headquarters of Quality Poultry & Seafood, one of the best distributors on a coast known for the quality of its catches straight from the Gulf of Mexico. Since 1951, the company has been supplying many of the best restaurants, and large casino hotels more recently, along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. At lunchtime only (Monday through Friday, 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.), Rosetti's serves up its own renditions of local favorites to a crowd of die-hard regulars and in-the-know travelers. Many patrons grab lunch here while also shopping for the seafood they plan to cook for dinner at home.
Rosetti’s is tacked on the end of the warehouse space, separated only by a half-height wall and some fishing net decor from the long retail fish counters in the main building, and features indoor and outdoor seating, mounted deer heads on the walls, and tables inlaid with whimsical depictions of local sea creatures. You order at the counter and get your food no frills-style in plastic boats lined with red and white checkered paper. The current location opened 12 years ago, when Quality built a new bigger warehouse, but the old one also had a restaurant, so the “new” operation continues a rich heritage.
Reason to visit: Royal Red shrimp, crawfish, Rosetti’s and wild shrimp po' boys, Friday special, gumbo
The food: Fresh, simple, delicious, cheap and extremely generous is what Rosetti’s is all about, and the specialty is local Gulf of Mexico seafood with Southern flair. Fresh shrimp, crawfish and crabs piled on ice at the adjacent retail counter can all be steamed or boiled to order for those seeking shellfish in its most primal, straightforward form. Raw Gulf oysters on the half shell also sell well. The most popular items on the menu, the ones many locals come for, are the pressed po' boy sandwiches, especially the fried wild Gulf shrimp one and the signature version, The Rosetti. This is a fresh blue crab cake with American cheese, fully “dressed” with lettuce, tomato and mayo, accompanied by a huge heap of French fries. The crab cake is excellent, and the pressed po' boy is a different take on a traditional crab cake sandwich. The inside of the tender cake is just a shade more pink than usual, as the manager explains, “lump meat looks pretty because it is so white, but we think the claw meat is sweeter, so we use that.” Great American Bites has repeatedly seen this same logic applied to some of the best lobster roll purveyors in Maine and beyond, who insist on using only knuckle and claw meat, not tails.
Unlike many po' boys in New Orleans, where the sub-style sandwich is best known, the tradition on the Gulf Coast is that it be pressed, like panini. Most places use a panini press, but here it is done by hand, flattening the sandwich against the flattop, simply because it has always been done that way. The po' boy rolls are baked in house daily, and every element of the process adds to how good they are. The Wild Gulf Shrimp po' boy is the other bestseller, and white shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico are prized worldwide for their sweetness and texture. Fresh wild caught season runs from April to November, when connoisseurs prefer to order it, and the rest of the year you get the same shrimp frozen, which is still very good.
Rosetti’s is also one of the few places serving what may be the world’s most desirable shrimp (or shellfish of any kind), the rare Royal Red. This column previously sampled this delicacy at Beach Boulevard Steamer in Gulfport, Miss. Of the 41 species of shellfish the FDA allows to be labeled “shrimp,” only one, pleoticus robustus, can be sold as Royal Red shrimp. These live at unusually extreme depths of 1,000 to 3,000 or more feet, making them much harder to catch, and they are only fished commercially in three spots on earth, all in the Gulf or off the coast of Florida. It is justifiably known as the King of Shrimp, the world’s rarest, most prized and arguably most delicious. They earned their name for being unusually red when raw, and are sweet, salty, rich and silky when cooked, more like lobster than other kinds of shrimp. Because they are scarce to begin with, and soft shelled, fragile and rarely shipped, the Gulf Coast is the best place to try them, and Rosetti’s offers them subject to availability, which is hit or miss. If the cafe does have Royal Reds, Quality’s CFO Jim Gunkel recommends ordering them sautéed with olive oil, butter, chopped green onions and garlic.
Made in Mississippi: Flavors only found on the Gulf Coast
Besides po' boys and steamed, boiled and sautéed seafood, the rest of the menu includes lots of fried seafood baskets and mixed platters, and excellent gumbo, loaded with andouille sausage and very small shrimp, which are thick and tasty, and in keeping with the portions, the cartoonish poster above the counter calls it “the biggest cup on the coast.” Daily lunch specials are very popular here, and can include Southern staples such as jambalaya, fried pork chops, hush puppies, and red beans and rice, and crowds come every Friday when the lunch special is a huge basket of fried shrimp, fried fish and French fries, served with slaw, dessert and a side of seafood gumbo for less than $12. If it’s offered, the dessert to go for here is the fresh banana pudding, which is always made in house with the perfect mix of banana slices, pudding and bread. “We give so much food they have to take it home,” says Gunkel. “Last Friday we served 200 lunch special platters in two-and-a-half hours. That’s a lot.”
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, if you are visiting the Gulf Coast, especially to taste the rare Royal Red shrimp, and if they don’t have it, you won’t be disappointed with the alternatives.
Rating: Yum-Plus! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $-$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 895 Division Street, Biloxi, MS; 228-432-2146; qualitypoultryandseafood.com
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.
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