In the kitchen at Rocky and Carlo’s
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
“It is only work that truly satisfies …”
– Bette Davis
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 watch for?”
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 for more.
“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 happy.”
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 ring …”
“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 the words.
“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 Restaurant?
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.”