By Todd A. Price, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Tommy makes the noodles. He gets into Rocky & Carlo's at 6 a.m. and boils enough perciatelli pasta -- like bucatini but wider -- to fill dozens of pans with 25 pounds of creamy mac and cheese. The other cooks will tell you that Tommy, 77, knows the trick to keep the noodles from going flat. It's about timing.
On April 24, 1965, Tommy Tommaseo, his brother Rocky and his brothers-in-law Carlo, Mario and Giuseppe "Joseph" Gioe opened Rocky & Carlo's on a stretch of St. Bernard Highway that now faces a forest of plants and refineries.
Half a century later, it's hard to imagine St. Bernard Parish without Rocky & Carlo's laughably large portion of veal parmesan, onion rings and spaghetti with red gravy.
The Tommaseos and Gioes were part of an immigrant community so bound to Sicily in the mid-20th century that someone like Carlo might be born in Chalmette and then return to Italy for a decade. The five men, their families linked by two marriages, first worked together at a place called Angelo's, a block from where they would open Rocky & Carlo's. More a bar than a restaurant, Angelo's was a place inhospitable to women.
"They kind of built Angelo's reputation up," said Tommy Tommaseo, Rocky's son, who everyone calls Mr. Tommy. "They started putting food together."
Mr. Tommy was 12 when his dad and uncles opened Rocky & Carlo's with the help of their wives. The men wanted everyone to know their new place was a restaurant, not a bar. Men and women were welcome.
"That's why they put 'Ladies Invited,'" Mr. Tommy said, "and we rolled with that, of course."
The five founders all owned equal shares. So how did Rocky and Carlo end up with their names painted on the front window and printed on the plastic cups?
"They were the two oldest," Mr. Tommy said.
Five months after Rocky & Carlo's opened, Hurricane Betsy hit. St. Bernard Parish was devastated. But Rocky & Carlo's survived. The men and their wives stuck candles into loaves of bread, opened the restaurant's doors and fed the people.
"We gave away a lot of food," Mr. Tommy said. "I get a lot of people still coming to tell me, 'If it hadn't been for your parents, we might have never made it through Betsy.'"
That's how it would be at Rocky & Carlo's. If people were hungry, the restaurant fed them.
"My brother-in-law, bless his heart," said Giuseppe's wife Angelina about Rocky, who died in 2009 at the age of 94, "if people were coming and said, 'I can't feed my kids,' he said, 'Don't worry about it, baby,' and he'd give the food."
After a hurricane passed, residents and first responders knew they could find a meal at Rocky & Carlo's.
"For every hurricane, we always geared up, prepped up," Mr. Tommy said. "We know we're going to get the civil defense. We know we're going to get the sheriff's office. We know we're going to get the fire department. Even if there was a mandatory close, we always fed them."
Then, five years later on Feb. 12, 2012, a bin of cleaning towels spontaneously caught fire. Rocky & Carlo's was destroyed again. But they rebuilt and returned in three months. That was the second-happiest day of Mr. Tommy's life.
Only three of Rocky & Carlo's founders are alive. Mario was killed in 1983. Carlo died in 1995, but his widow, Leonarda "Nana," still works in the kitchen. Joseph retired in 2003, selling his shares. Now the older Tommy, Mr. Tommy and Nana own Rocky & Carlo's.
The first generation still speaks English with an accent. When they gather, the conversation switches to Italian.
Mr. Tommy's two sons work at the restaurant. His uncle Tommy has two daughters who work at Rocky & Carlo's, one part-time and the other full-time. Ask Mr. Tommy about who might one day take over, and he deflects the question.
"We have never talked about that," Mr. Tommy said. "We talk about today and tomorrow."
Will Rocky & Carlo's survive another 50 years?
"Fifty? I don't know," he said. "Ten I can guarantee, because I can be here another 10."