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Finding Comfort in Da Parish 

ROCKY & CARLO'S diners load up on heaping portions of po-boys, New Orleans pot cooking, baked macaroni and the local version of gravy.

Rocky & Carlo's, the spiritual hub of Chalmette's restaurant scene, is just four miles from the Orleans Parish line, which is to say that it's worlds away. Driving along St. Claude Avenue from downtown, you buzz past Bywater's Saturn Bar and Mandich Restaurant; you gain momentum along the stretch of St. Bernard Highway where every corner shop seems to be called a food store and every eat-place a diner; and when you slow up slightly around The Palms Casino & Truckstop, you notice a brighter, greener grass out here and a residential sprawl that isn't suburban anymore but refreshingly small town.

There's a summons painted in turquoise on the front windows -- "Ladies Invited" -- which, considering its proximity to a major industrial park, is common courtesy. The bar-restaurant actually comes with its own army of ladies, all dressed in pullover red smocks and hairnets to cover their ponytails. They take orders from behind the cafeteria-style steam table, prepare food in the exposed kitchen, clear tables and carry on with a high-pitched repartee that sometimes sounds so well-rehearsed you suspect they get a bonus for the live performance. Just as one woman yanks a basket of glorious cornmeal-battered oysters from the deep fryer, the youngest one squeals, "I have to go to school after this! I try not to sit next to anybody because I know I stink like fried food." They all cackle. It's good to be reminded that every fried oyster comes with its set of sacrifices.

You'll fit in best in the parking lot if you bring your pickup truck; you'll fit in best among the wood-paneled walls if you bring your appetite. One hulking portion of baked macaroni and cheese -- long, hollow tubes of pasta stuck together with real cheddar, eggs and butter -- makes a box of Kraft look like an after-school snack. When I called dibs on the brown bubbly cheese on top and ordered a wop salad, the woman assigned to me asked "Is that all?" The wop salad -- go ahead, say it -- is the sort of knee-weakening thing that Shakespeare would have written sonnets about if he had lived in New Orleans: a glossy heap of bleach-green iceberg lettuce, purple cabbage, celery, fistfuls of green olives and sweet onion you could eat like an apple. There's so much minced garlic that I thought it was grated Parmesan at first; everything is wet with vinegar, which travels like a cool fire all the way through your brain.

Rocky Tommaseo is the indestructible 87-year-old Sicilian who opened the restaurant with his brother-in-law, the late Carlo Gioe, in 1965. He still mans the register at night, when the oil refinery across the road lights up like a misshapen Christmas tree. He fusses in Italian when employees take self-appointed breaks, and he modestly fields greetings from the lineup of regular customers like, "Yo, Rocky, you looking younger every day!" If there's a dominant gene for restaurateuring, Rocky's rugged-looking grandson got it; he wraps sandwiches like a machine and runs the day shift with an authoritative quietness that completely conceals his desire to be snowboarding. Mike, the very cool bartender, is another institution within da Parish institution. He has long, yellow-white hair, he loves the History Channel and butter beans, and he sings along to Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," which is the only song I've ever heard played on the jukebox. A sign behind Mike's bar lists the specialty drinks -- Bloody Mary, margarita, White Russian -- but people mostly order Barq's.

Rocky & Carlo's menu merges po-boys, New Orleans pot cooking, American comfort foods and New Orleans' brand of red gravy Sicilian, with some haggard rehydrated mashed potatoes thrown in. You get fined 25 cents for to-go containers if the mess hall portions get the best of you. Bracciolini is dense meatloaf packed around hard-cooked egg and smothered with sweet tomato sauce. Both stringy onion rings and fried-to-order chicken come with perfectly flaky batter. A pork chop po-boy is made with fairly tough meat from three heavily-seasoned pork chops, separated from the bone still sizzling. Po-boys don't get pickles, but the tomatoes are eerily ripe. Anything comes with gravy if you specify the color: brown or red?

No, I've never tried the stuffed peppers. In March 2001, a salmonella outbreak in St. Bernard Parish was linked to one tray of Rocky & Carlo's stuffed peppers. Many people got sick, and one elderly woman died. Although no trace of salmonella was ever found inside the restaurant, and no employees reported symptoms of illness, a final report issued by the Louisiana Office of Public Health states, "There was a strong and significant association between consumption of stuffed bell peppers and disease."

Today, Rocky & Carlo's appears to be at least as sanitary as my favorite places to eat grilled shrimp po-boys, Vietnamese pho and over-stuffed burritos. When I asked Rocky Sr. about the scare, he told me in his 70 percent Italian/30 percent Chalmette accent, "This place wouldn't be open anymore if they found something. Everything has been checked." I have to believe him. Where would I go for my favorite wop salad and bulldozer load of cheddar noodles otherwise?

click to enlarge The wood-paneled walls and buzz of waitresses invite diners to enter ROCKY & CARLO'S with a hefty appetite. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The wood-paneled walls and buzz of waitresses invite diners to enter ROCKY & CARLO'S with a hefty appetite.
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