Head Hunting_lowres

Sal Pennino (front left, with friends) and his family have been boiling seafood at his namesake restaurant since 1979.

The first item to hit the table when you sit down at Sal's Seafood in Marrero is the newspaper, several sheaves of it, unfolded and spread around to protect every inch of the plastic-sealed tabletop. Next, the waitress, who was smoking behind the bar when you arrived, asks for your beer order: Abita -- scratch that, no Abita today -- Coors, Coors Lite, Miller, Dixie, Day's, Bud ... . When she delivers the order of sweating, ice-cold cans, and when you pop one open to release a puff of icy beer fog, you just know you've arrived at a joint where they have the art of boiling seafood down to a science. Sal Pennino and his family have been boiling seafood here since 1979.

"How many pounds? Ten? Fifteen? Three to 5 pounds per person usually does it." This time of year at Sal's the waitress could only be talking about crawfish, which is the only thing on any other table in the house besides one woman's bowl of shrimp spaghetti and the cold, clean, raw Gulf oysters balanced on platters of rock salt around the room. In less than five minutes, she's upending a brown paper bag to scatter mustard seeds, bay leaf shards and 10 pounds of warm (but not hot), flame-orange, bubble-eyed shellfish across the photographs of Pope John Paul II and Dick Cheney. She dumps sticky-sweet sweet corn from a plastic bag and unleashes boil-spiced pink potatoes from their red net sack.

She also brings over a stack of napkins in lieu of plates and silverware, but those go untouched until the massive pile of food has been transformed into a massive pile of detritus: sucked heads, vacant exoskeletons, crushed beer cans and spent wedges of lemon. Satisfaction at a crawfish boil largely depends upon stamina -- not necessarily how much you can eat but how much you can peel. I was so satisfied after my first dinner at Sal's, my mouth humming softly with red pepper and my head cleared by cold beer, that I went to bed without chocolate and didn't even dream about it.

The lucky individuals who were too young to remember their first crawfish boil are the ones with the cleanest hands in the room; the heap of emptied shells peaks in front of them, incriminating their peeling talents. You can also identify the natives by how quickly they're able to deconstruct the sharp-legged boiled blue crabs. With nothing but a butter knife to help crack, pry and dig, you understand why lump crabmeat is often more expensive than lobster. The first week of April may have brought with it some prime crawfish eatin', but it was a truly heavenly time for Sal's blue crabs -- even served cold. The plump crabmeat was spicier than the mellow crawfish by a long mile and so sweet you wondered if they dumped sugar into the boiling water, too.

An all-crawfish meal is the ritual this time of year, but these crabs made a fantastic interlude between pounds 3 and 4. And as long as I'm breaking tradition, I also like to circulate a bowl of seafood gumbo around the table. With oysters, shrimp and half a crab fortifying the already strong broth, plus moss-green file powder dusting the surface and the bowl, Sal's homely but good gumbo pays idolatrous homage to the nearby swamp. The crawfish etouffee, on the other hand, pays homage to something fishier and not altogether pleasant.

The shrimp, not up to boiling standards in early April, are just fine butterflied and fried under a dark brown batter whose secret seasonings mimic the Colonel's. They come with cocktail sauce, tartar sauce and fries, and they rest on toasted white bread, a practice that seems to be an ordinance in certain Louisiana parishes. There's no menu at Sal's but plenty of menu items, mostly seafood-oriented, scribbled on sheets of white paper and taped to the walls. A refrigerated cooler near the entrance is filled with stuffed artichoke hearts, bread pudding and two-bite sweet potato pies. I may try some of it one day, but not until after crawfish season.

Sal's waitresses know instinctively when to wander over with another round of beers, never considering that anyone would decline. A group of rosy-cheeked railroad engineers drank five apiece during their 30-pound dinner, one of their adolescent sons keeping pace with Dr. Pepper. Buzzed and chatty when the crawfish was gone, they engaged my table of friends in a round of jokes that would be better suited to another column in another sort of publication. Even so, their merry-making illustrates the camaraderie that's felt in a bare-bones dining room when sleeves are rolled up, silverware ignored and the dearth of Abita beer forgotten. A passion for springtime crawfish is as unanimous at Sal's as it is in the rest of Louisiana, whether you're the tourist wiping flavorful yellow fat from the tails with her napkin, the white-bloused woman carefully plucking them from their shells with red manicured fingernails or the dusty-capped manly man yanking at them with his front teeth and spitting bits of shell out onto last month's news.