by Ian McNulty
Given our recent Katrina experiences, New Orleans people know all about welcoming back beloved neighborhood institutions that had to go dark for a while. Tomorrow, however, one of the heavyweights of the neighborhood institution genre will go through that reopening ritual for the second time.
Rocky & Carlo’s (613 W. St. Bernard Hwy., Chalmette, 279-8323), easily the best-known and most important restaurant in St. Bernard Parish, has been closed since a fire in February devastated its building. The family owners will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Tuesday, May 29, at 10:30 a.m. and then lunch will commence at 11 a.m., with po-boys, heaving plates of Sicilian classics and the restaurant’s trademark, tube-style macaroni and cheese (with red or brown gravy) once again issuing from the cafeteria-style service line.
Damage from the fire was extensive, but throughout the repairs the family kept the look just as it had been before. Many vintage touches survived, like the restaurant's neon lettering and the "ladies invited" stenciling out front, an advisory that could not always be taken for granted at a tavern so close to Chalemette's industrial riverfront when Rocky & Carlo's first opened. The family completed the job in a little more than three months, and they had a lot of help from devoted friends to make it happen.
“We have a lot of friends that have taken care of us and we’re really grateful for that,” says Tommy Tommaseo, the restaurant’s manager.
The closure was not just a matter of putting a popular neighborhood joint out of business for a while. The restaurant is the hub of Chalmette, and it can seem like the de facto town hall at times. It’s also an essential stop on the way back from fishing trips out of St. Bernard Parish and it’s been the dinner target for countless short road trip hauls for people around the area.
It is no stranger to calamity either, and in fact the Rocky & Carlo’s reputation was first set in the face of an earlier disaster. Rocky Tommaseo and Carlo Gioe first opened the restaurant in 1965. Hurricane Betsy hit that same year, bringing a great deal of destruction to St. Bernard Parish. But all the while, the Rocky & Carlo’s crew kept cooking, giving away their food to families who found themselves suddenly in need. The then-new restaurant instantly endeared itself to a grateful community, and some of those families have been returning the favor ever since.
Like practically everything else in Chalmette, the restaurant was inundated by Katrina flooding but Rocky and Carlo’s was able to reopen early in 2007. Now well into her 80s, Gioe’s bride, Leonarda "Nana" Gioe, has been presiding over the gravy pots and macaroni pans in the kitchen all the while. She’ll be cooking away on Tuesday too, Tommy Tommaseo confirms.
“Same recipes, same cooks, what else would we do?” he says.
Rocky & Carlo’s will resume its previous hours of operation, serving from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.