A few New Year's Eves ago, Louis (pronounced Louie) counseled me through my first pot of black-eyed peas. "You'll do fine," he said, ringing me out at the front register of Matassa's Market, located at the corner of St. Philip and Dauphine streets in the French Quarter. He was right -- they were delicious.
In June, when I found myself shivering on the sofa under five blankets, I feverishly ordered a bowl of their homemade vegetable soup, some saltine crackers and 7-Up. Alex, their young wisecracking delivery guy, soon rolled up on his bicycle with my order. That despite my new address in the Treme neighborhood -- Matassa's Market is the only Quarter food place I've found that delivers across Rampart Street.
These days, I stop into Matassa's nearly every day. The place is endearing to me, bringing unforgettable images: the giant inflated snowman and Santa that light up the balcony above the store at Christmas-time; Louis and his older brother, John, out on the sidewalk boiling crawfish; their father, legendary record producer Cosimo Matassa, changing a fuse in the fuse box or jawing with customers out front.
I began going to Matassa's not long after moving here in 1999, because Charlie Sims, chef-owner of Donna's Bar & Grill, told me not to bother with fresh produce from anywhere else in the Quarter. I'm a fan of the store's organic milk, locally made honey, fresh berries and herbs, yellow and red peppers, and nice, ripe avocados. Their berries, like other things, are often homegrown. "Louisiana strawberries are smaller," explains 78-year-old Cosimo Matassa. "But they're nicer, they're sweeter; they ripen on the vine."
Cosimo grew up here, first putting soap on the bottom shelves, coming home from school to stock cans at eye level, then graduating to placing cereal boxes on the upper reaches. The store's inventory was smaller then; most of the bulk-sized products were fetched by the people behind the counter. That included people like Cosimo's father, who moved to New Orleans and bought the store in 1924.
The Quarter then held 15,000 residents, a vast number compared to the area's 500 current registered voters, says Matassa. Many residents were new immigrants, many were black, most had children who delighted in hide-and-seek in the Quarter's many nooks and crannies. "We lived cheek by jowl," he says. "We were integrated -- we just didn't know it."
Outside, street vendors plied their wares with distinctive calls. "The place had vitality," he says. Gray shutters in the back of today's store mark the entrances to the family's two side-by-side bars, segregated according to the laws of the day but with a shared pay-phone area between the two that served as a mingling spot. A long L of counter began in the grocery store and ended back in the bars. (There is a Cosimo's bar down the street, but there is no connection -- it was named for a different Cosimo.)
When Matassa left the record business in the 1980s, he returned to the family business. The bars closed shortly before that, and the store took in that space and the space from an adjacent ground-floor residence in the same building. So much for the days when there were only eight kinds of cereal. "Our store is tiny," he says. "We cram it full and still we don't have everything."
Quantity is not everything. Matassa's meat department displays thick, fresh cuts, produced by their in-house butcher. Balsamic vinegar and olive oils are staples, although not in big vats, like they used to be, says the elder Matassa, recalling the days when the old men rubbed a couple of drops of oil between the palms of their hands, saying, "If I can smell Italy, I'll buy it."
Dessert choices include chocolate from Germany and France, sorbets from Angelo Brocato, and thin, delicious cappuccino-flavored cookies from Sweden that remind me of back home in Minnesota. "We like nice things, so we stock them," Matassa explains.
Although the Quarter has been largely taken over by what Matassa calls "the lifted-pinky set," this is one store that still serves all walks of life. And I mean serve; deliverymen escort little kids or old ladies back home. To the Matassa family, running a grocery also seems to mean looking out for their customers.
One evening my debit card didn't work. I grimaced, admitted that I might not have the money in my account and began to return the groceries to their shelves. John Matassa stopped me, handed over the receipt and told me to pay them when I could. When I returned a few days later, I thanked him profusely. No problem, he said. "That's what we're here for."