CHALMETTE, LA — With family in Louisiana, I’ve been eating muffalettas, gumbo, jambalaya, po-boys, etouffees and the like in New Orleans since as long as I can remember. But there’s a lot more to the city than its incredible Creole culinary treasures, and on this particular trip I wanted to make sure I tasted some of them. That meant a Southern Italian cum Southern American (with a touch of creole) lunch at Rocky & Carlo’s, one of the area’s many old-school Sicilian-American restaurants. (For a great profile of one of the best in the area, check Edible New Orleans’ report on Mosca’s.)
Found on West Street Bernard Highway, the funnily named main drag in the small blue collar town of Chalmette, Rocky & Carlo’s is a fluorescently lit, utilitarian tables and chairs and paper napkins kind of place, with a long well-lit bar running along its left flank. It closes at 7 p.m., shutting its doors after early supper hour in a little strip of a building literally across the street from oil refineries that give the neighborhood a scent of petroleum jelly. Launched in 1965, a time when “women didn’t go to bars very often,” our waitress/barkeep informed us, Rocky and Carlo decided to splash the slogan “ladies invited” across their windows, and the phrase has stuck with their spot ever since.
Whether you’re a lady or not, to eat at R&C’s you either sit at the bar or line up in front of the steam tables to order food to take back to your spare tables, which are literally littered with leftovers you could practically make a meal from. That’s due to Rocky & Carlo’s XXL-sized platters of thick spaghetti with fist-sized, almost milky-sweet meatballs and an even sweeter red “gravy;” stuffed peppers in more red gravy; mountains of papery-thin onion rings; fried oysters, soft-shells, catfish or even super-crispy chicken, if you’re willing to wait an extra 20 minutes; vegetables cooked for hours with sausage; plastic baskets of soft Italian bread with whipped butter spread; chopped salads of red cabbage, lettuce, parsley and celery served with little plastic tubs of Italian dressing and Parmesan and given an unprintable name that’s slang for Italian-Americans; and the most incredibly strandy-looking macaroni and cheese, made with long, thick strands of the hollow pasta called bucatini.
As I piled up my plate with cornmeal-battered oysters, some cheese-cloaked bucatini, soft, soft green beans cooked with sausage and that spaghetti with red sauce — almost as if there were a marathon in my future — I was reminded of the debates I had in graduate school in the food studies program at NYU. Those were always over “authenticity.” My plate — my holy moly that’s an incredibly full plate! — wasn’t authentic Sicilian or authentic Southern or authentic Creole or authentic fast-food (and it would make most locavores shudder, local oysters aside) but it was totally, authentically Chalmette, authentically Rocky & Carlo’s. And pretty damn good, even if we don’t need to eat again until 2012.