[StBernard] In the kitchen at Rocky and Carlo's
westley at da-parish.com
Wed Sep 1 17:58:15 EDT 2010
In the kitchen at Rocky and Carlo's
It wouldn't surprise anybody chowing down at Rocky and Carlo's famous eatery
in Chalmette if the cook, Mrs. Leonarda Gioe ("Everybody calls me Nana
Gioe") ambled over to a table, pointed to that thing on a customer's wrist
and asked, "A watch, huh? And what would anybody having a great time need a
That would happen simply because in Nana Gioe's world, there's no such thing
as time; it's an inconceivable element in her life. In her world there's
only Rocky and Carlo's, where the sign outside and the message on the menu
advises in big letters, "Ladies Invited." And there's work. That is where
the twains of Nana Gioe's world come into perfect confluence.
The 85-year-old, maybe 4-foot-10 Sicilian woman is a non-stop dynamo,
putting in 12 to 14 hours a day to keep the customers happy and coming back
"I've been here since the doors open - day one. This restaurant [was] opened
in 1965 by my husband, Calogero (Carlo) and his brother-in-law, Rocky," Nana
Gioe says in her Sicilian accent. "I work, work, work because I love it! I
had a friend - she never worked. All she did was go to the casino and take
vacations. She died at 76. Me? I never go anywhere. Since I first came to
America in 1950 I never left Louisiana. I never wanted to go any place else!
That kitchen back there, that's where my world is; that's what makes me
Her grandson Michael O'Brien, a recent Loyola University graduate, nods in
agreement. "We didn't think she was going to be able to come to my
graduation," he says. "After a lot of trying, we finally got her to take off
a half-day to go. This place is Nana Gioe's whole life. Outside of this
restaurant, there's nothing else."
To be sure, Nana Gioe has played a major role in building the iconic image
to which the restaurant has held fast through the years.
Sitting in the shadow of the monster Kaiser Aluminum Company smoke stack
that was once as much of a beacon that said, "You've arrived in Chalmette"
as the nearby Chalmette Battlefield, Rocky and Carlo's went from
neighborhood joint to something much more shortly after it opened, when
Hurricane Betsy smashed into the Louisiana coast. The brothers-in-law Rocky
and Carlo kept Nana Gioe busier than ever, churning out her magical dishes
in the kitchen in the back as they gave them away through the front door to
families that had lost everything.
"That was really the beginning of this restaurant," says Tommy Tommaseo,
present-day manager. "Nobody had a bigger hand in building that legend than
Nana Gioe. She worked and worked and never tired and never complained.
All these years later, she's working harder than ever. There's nothing else
she wants to do."
Hurricane Betsy now lives in memories and Kaiser Aluminum is gone, but Rocky
and Carlo's remains, and still becomes filled with politicians of every
stripe and with everyday people who earn their living hauling in their daily
catches from the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
"Gov. Bobby Jindal, came in here," Nana Gioe says. "He asked for me. One of
the Saints' coaches came in and let me wear, what you call it, the ball bowl
"Super Bowl ring," O'Brien corrects her.
"Yes, it was big as an eggplant."
It is clear that Nana Gioe is uncomfortable sitting and chatting about the
past - or about anything except how she still misses her husband 15 years
after his passing.
Fresh from the kitchen, she rubs her hands over the black T-shirt she wears,
the one emblazoned with the Rocky and Carlo's name and the words, "I'm a
fan." Her finger runs down the columns in the menu as a proud mother does
when recounting the names of all her children on a family tree.
She squints a bit then reads out, "macaroni and cheese, lasagna, meat balls
and spaghetti, crab cakes ("That's a new dish I'ma tryin'"), stuffed pepper
When read, these dishes wouldn't conjure up the same images were they not
spiced up by Nana Gioe's accent, with the familiar "a" at the end of many of
"I took in ironing when Carlo and his brothers worked at Angelo's Restaurant
down the street," she says. "I couldn't just sit here. I worked. Then Rocky
and Carlo bought this piece of land and built this building themselves.
I've been in it ever since. I could not be happier any place else. I never
want to leave."
"We had to literally pull her out of here when [Hurricane] Katrina hit,"
O'Brien says. "She didn't want to leave."
"Yes," says Nana Gioe, her palm inching up her chest until it's neck high,
emulating the rising Katrina waters.
"Then they come in and they put me on . on . Michael, what you call that
boat they put me on?"
"A jet ski," O'Brien says. "They actually put her on a jet ski and got her
out of here. But I tell you, she did not want to leave. This is her heaven.
This place is her life. In the two-and-a-half years after Katrina when the
restaurant was closed she was so depressed. I'd never seen her like that
before. It was awful seeing her idle like that. The day the restaurant
opened, she was right back in that kitchen - and the glow returned."
How long will Nana Gioe remain as the heart and soul of Rocky and Carlo's
She scrunches up her face and clears her throat, "Well, like my husband
Carlo used to say, 'You work and you work and you are happy in your work.
When your work is done, you go home to God.' Hey, the pope died," Nana Gioe
says philosophically. "And they made a new pope. When Nana Gioe goes, they
just gonna make another ."
"Nawww," O'Brien intones as he holds up his hand to interrupt, "There'll
never be another Nana Gioe. What they do make won't even be close."
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