New Orleans' Italian: All in the Famiglia

Chris Granger
by John T. Edge - Louisiana - February/March 2012

At Rocky & Carlo’s, Louisiana history comes with a side of smothered macaroni

True to that form, a steam table line hugs the back of the dining room. Come for Tuesday lunch and you’ll wait your turn with the Kiwanis Club. On Sundays, VFW Post 3706 members claim their tables by eleven, before post-mass Catholics from Our Lady of Prompt Succor throng the green-terrazzo-tiled room.

On any given day, you’ll meet some member of the Tommaseo and Gioe families. Born in Sicily, Rocky Tommaseo and Carlo Gioe were  friends who married each other’s sisters. Today, their descendants run the place.

If you’re lucky, Tammy Tommaseo, a bright-eyed twenty-something-year-old with a wild swoop of dreadlocked hair, will be working the bar. In addition to mixing a fine salad-style Bloody, jammed with a half bushel of pickled green beans, she’s a great menu tutor. Her skills are needed, for Rocky & Carlo’s digs deep into the Sicilian-American playbook. Among Tammy’s favorites are butter-bathed artichokes stuffed with garlic bread crumbs; monstrous fried onion rings, stacked to form an allium sculpture; and a stupefyingly good baked long macaroni, paved with cheddar and drenched in an honest brown gravy. 

And then there’s the Wop Salad.

A slur, likely derived from the Neapolitan word guappo for a handsome or rakish man, the word wop has long been used in America, first by nativists who resented Italian immigrants and later by Italians themselves. From at least the 1930s onward, Italian restaurateurs in New Orleans have employed the term to describe a garlicky heap of iceberg lettuce, tossed with anchovies and olive salad (the same mixture of pickled vegetables that defines a muffuletta).

Today, Rocky & Carlo’s is one of the few restaurants to still use the term. Depending on your tolerance for retrograde indulgence, you’ll either take offense or ask for another serving of the Tommaseo-Gioe iteration. But no matter which way you swing, toward matters of etymology or gastronomy, a trip to Chalmette will prove integral to your culinary education.

Must Eats: Three more Italian-Southern stalwarts

Luigi’s, Augusta, GA
Greek-owned since 1949, and beloved for spaghetti with chicken livers and meat sauce.

Tomaro’s Bakery, Clarksburg, WV
Once popular with Italian mine workers, Tomaro’s is famous for its pepperoni rolls. 304-622-0691

The Venesian Inn, Tontitown, AR
Fried chicken and spaghetti is the classic combo at this 1947 vintage workhorse.