My Rouses Everyday, September & October 2018
The sun is just beginning to rise over St. Bernard Highway, the long road that snakes through St. Bernard Parish past vast fields, refineries and the Chalmette dining institution Rocky & Carlo’s.
At 6 a.m., Tommy Tommaseo is already up — removing pounds of perciatelle pasta from cardboard boxes before submerging it in the giant cauldrons of boiling water as he begins to make the restaurant’s legendary baked macaroni and cheese.
Hanging in the back of the restaurant’s kitchen is a singe piece of paper nailed to the wall. The weathered sheet is covered in inky scrawls, a growing list of barely decipherable numbers and letters:
T 9:35. T 1:20. B 2:05.
For anyone else, the list might amount to little more than chicken scratch. But for Tommaseo, this piece of paper — which he uses to chart how long a dish has been cooking — is everything.
It’s all about timing when making his restaurant’s most revered dish, Tommaseo says. The pasta must be boiled for exactly 20 minutes so that the long, tube-like strands still hold up.
“See, you want it to look like this — like a straw,” Tommaseo says, holding up one of the long noodles, which are like bucatini, but thicker. “I don’t want a squishy top. Not like this,” and with that he pinches the noodle to mush between his short fingers.
Once the giant vessels of the assembled dish are put into the oven, Tommaseo carefully records the time they go in, making sure to take them out exactly two hours later. If the pasta stays in too long, it will be dry; if it’s not baked long enough, the dish won’t set right and will taste raw.
“We try to do it just right,” Tommaseo says with a proud smile.
At 81, Tommaseo is the last surviving member of the revered St. Bernard institution’s original owners. In 1965, the group of men, all recently emigrated from Sicily, included Tommaseo, his older brother Rocky and his brothers-in-law Carlo, Mario and Giuseppe Gioe. Growing up in a large family on a farm in Sicily, Tommaseo began cooking at a young age — the workers needed to eat, and there was only so much his parents could handle on their own. So when the time came for 25-year-old Tommaseo to leave his home and travel to America, opening a restaurant seemed like the most natural thing to do.
More than five decades later, Rocky & Carlo’s is still arguably the parish’s most iconic eatery, known for its heaping portions of stick-to-your-ribs, red-sauce-Italian food. Rocky’s son and Tommaseo’s nephew, “Mr. Tommy,” run the day-to-day operations and the register up front while Tommaseo, his 93-year-old sister “Nana,” and a group of extended family members and longtime employees work in the kitchen and throughout the restaurant.
Despite his age, the sprightly Tommaseo still moves with a general ease and familiarity of the space, something that can only come from years of repetition and practice.
Though the restaurant is known for its ridiculously large portions of spaghetti soaked in red gravy, veal Parmesan and towering plates of onion rings, it’s the cheese-laden baked macaroni that has become the spot’s calling card. On weekends, the restaurant often goes through more than 40 of the deep chafing dishes, which hold roughly 25 to 30 pounds of pasta.
Tommaseo recalls a day where they ran out of the dish 15 minutes before closing.
“We had a line out the door,” he said. “But when they heard there was no macaroni, the line just disappeared. Nothing sells like the macaroni.”
Part of the secret is the enormous amount of cheese the kitchen folds in. Pounds of cheese — a mixture of Colby Jack and sharp cheddar cheese — are grated and layered throughout the dish. Once the task is complete — with approximately three to four layers of cheese and noodles, plus a hefty sprinkling of the cheese on the top – a mixture of whisked eggs and milk is poured over, which helps the layers join and congeal into a custardy, cheesy casserole.
For the first 45 minutes, Tommaseo lets the dish cook uncovered, so that the thick layer of cheese on the top begins to brown and crisp. Then, the macaroni is covered with aluminum foil and continues to cook for the remaining time. The finished product is crunchy and bronzed on top and oozing with cheesy, creamy strands of pasta. Although it might seem hard to improve upon, many in-the-know regulars have learned that a heaping spoonful of the restaurant’s sweet and juicy red gravy on top is what makes the meal truly decadent.
Over the years, the restaurant’s owners have refused to divulge the exact measurements or recipe for the pasta dish, and that’s just as well, because half of the joy of eating at Rocky & Carlo’s is just being there — observing the generations of family members hard at work, always talking, laughing, and of course, eating.