Turns out, oyster shells do not swiftly or naturally decompose. This is how we know that the earliest of Americans have been oyster-mad, off and on, give or take, for 7,000 years. The Lenape Indians left behind great, glimmering piles -- sometimes acres across and four feet deep -- of emptied oyster shells, all over the Atlantic Coast. There were at least two streets in New York City named after these giant heaps of discarded oysters (Shell Point and Pearl Street, both since renamed). This "sapid and slippery morsel," as British biologist Thomas Huxley described the delicacy, "is gone like a gustatory flash of summer lightning," and it was, at least in terms of units eaten, America's favorite food for centuries. (In fact, the oldest operating restaurant in the U.S. is said to be Boston's Ye Olde Union Oyster House, dating to 1826).
That gastronomical pedigree chart will lead us, eventually, to Wintzell's Oyster House, the small Mobile, Ala., chain that opened its first Pennsylvania -- and, as of now, only non-Alabama -- location a month ago, in a vacated Damon's near Century III Mall. What might 19th-century statesman Daniel Webster, alleged to have eaten frequently at Ye Olde Union, have thought of a place that puts spinach, bacon and jalapenos on top of the oysters?
Heck if I know. What am I, the Amazing Kreskin? But he probably would have been OK with it -- even then, oysters were a versatile base for a variety of preparations: "Oysters were cheap; they were eaten pickled, stewed, baked, roasted, fried and scalloped; in soups, patties and puddings; for breakfast, lunch and dinner," explains The New York Times, in a book review of Mark Kurlansky's "The Big Oyster." Here's what I can tell you with some certainty: Mr. Webster, who had cirrhosis of the liver when he died, would have washed down those oyster plates with a "tall tumbler of brandy," which does not appear to be a possibility at Wintzell's. At least, it wasn't on the list of cocktail specials.
What you can get here is oysters, lots of them -- "fried, stewed or nude," as the company slogan goes, among the hundreds of other slogans, sayings and various pearls of wisdom pinned to the walls. Munch tried 'em all: Nude (as in, still alive and kickin'). Fried ($5 for a hot half order, juicy and breaded). For $18.99, out comes the sampler platter -- Monterey-style (bacon, cheese and jalapeno), Bienvelle (the richest of the quartet, baked in cream and eggs, with crabmeat and shrimp), char-grilled (just some salt, butter, parmesan and spices), and then four oysters Rockefeller (called such because namesake John D. Rockefeller was so rich and eccentric that he sometimes carried gobs of creamed spinach around in his pockets). Sixteen oysters, total, in the platter, plus a dozen or so more in the fried basket.
I don't like to use the phrase "heroic appetite" cavalierly but, hey, when the shoe fits, you wear it, and then you order a trio of fish tacos ($9.99), a pretty basic, but spicy, dish -- blackened whitefish of unspecified species, topped with shredded purple cabbage and pico de gallo, in a soft flour shell.
Along the way, a bowl of seafood gumbo ($4.99) and a plate of over-rich seafood pasta ($9.99, shrimp tossed in alfredo) were consumed. In for a penny, in for a pound, I guess. As the restaurant's Alabama headquarters would portend, this menu slants south of the Mason-Dixon line: cheese grits, okra, po' boys, catfish, fried dill pickles and green tomatoes, red beans and rice. You won't frequently find these dishes in Pittsburgh outside of NOLA and a few other Southern-style barbecue joints.
I won't claim to know how Wintzell's, a celebrated shack-sized institution in Mobile but a thoroughly unknown brand in Pittsburgh, will fare in a too-big Route 51 location where Damon's Grill, and Hoss's before it, could not survive. But I do know there's nothing quite like it here -- a bit down market from Red Lobster, a bit less frenzied than Joe's Crab Shack, more family-oriented than Rumfish Grille or McCormick & Schmick's.
And I also know that America, 7,000 years later, still can't get enough oysters. That right there is a promising sign.
Wintzell's Oyster House is at 530 E. Bruceton Road, Pleasant Hills; 412-650-9090. www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com. Open seven days.munch
Bill Toland: email@example.com or 412-263-2625.