Red Gravy (125 Camp St., 504-561-8844; www.redgravycafe.com) owner and chef Roseann Melisi Rostoker is a petite powerhouse, commanding order and respect in the effortless way a mother does. Swift-walking, Jersey-talking Rostoker notices a dirty table. "What are you doing acting like there's nothing to do? There are tables to be cleaned here," she tells an employee.
A New Jersey native, Rostoker began her decade-long love affair with New Orleans on a trip for her 41st birthday. "My boyfriend, my partner here in the restaurant, Lou Lombardo, took me here as a birthday present and we fell in love with the city absolutely," Rostoker says. "We even felt like we'd been here before. The spirit, the smells, the fragrances, the sounds, the whole look all felt very familiar to us."
Rostoker guarantees the Red Gravy dining experience is almost identical to those she had growing up (excluding having 30 people eating around a pool table at Thanksgiving). She paid homage to New Orleans by naming the restaurant Red Gravy and serving gumbo, but she doesn't plan to imitate New Orleans Italian. "It's a different kind of Italian here," she says, "There's a lot of Southern influence and I'm trying to not go down that road. There's enough people that have done that successfully and I just want it to stay true to my heritage and to my roots and the way we cooked in my house." Rostoker makes hoagies instead of po-boys and tops them with hot peppers instead of pickles.
Using fresh ingredients, many from the Crescent City Farmers Market, the Louisiana Seafood Exchange and Nor-Joe Imports, Rostoker cooks breakfast jams, meatballs, red gravy, stuffed artichokes, cannoli, praline bread pudding and other made-to-order dishes daily. Rostoker shops on Tuesdays when the restaurant is closed, making Wednesdays and Thursdays the best days to come for specials like soft-shell crab. Now that Red Gravy is open for BYOB dinner from 5 p.m until 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, customers will find hearty fare like osso buco and an Italian version of shrimp and grits, which uses polenta.
Rostoker is grateful to have enough business to sustain dinner service and catering for office parties, lunches and breakfasts. "To be the new kid on the block, especially a Yankee, I'm very appreciative of the support from all the local people," she says.