Joseph Casamento, 1925-2005
In 1925, Elena Casamento gave birth to baby Joseph above the famous Uptown oyster bar that bears their family's name. Joseph lived his entire life at the same address and, in fact, never worked anyplace other than Casamento's. "He was one of the best oyster openers in New Orleans," Linda Gerdes said. "He'd open them really clean. He opened them for 50 years."
It does not go without saying what he ate for dinner.
"He had a ham sandwich every night," said Gerdes, wife of C.J. Gerdes, Casamento's nephew and an owner of the family restaurant. "And then he had some cookies and his ice cream. It had to be Haagen Dazs."
The man his nephew called "one of a kind" graduated from Jesuit High School on a scholarship. As a teenager he began delivering sandwiches by bicycle for the restaurant his father, Joe Casamento, an immigrant from Ustica, Italy, founded in 1919, lining it inside and out with tile to make it easy to clean. With the exception of a tour in the Philippines to man howitzer artillery pieces in World War II, Casamento rarely left New Orleans.
"He didn't travel at all," Linda Gerdes said. "There was a rumor around that we closed every summer so Joe could go back to Italy. He'd never been to Italy, never intended to go to Italy. He'd say, 'My dad left Italy. Why would I go back?'"
"The last vacation he went on was when the family went to Gatlinburg," C.J. Gerdes said. "That was 32 years ago."
After returning from the war, Casamento fixed his life to his family's iconic, tile-lined restaurant and his home upstairs. He liked computers and cameras. "He used to take pictures of the city when it flooded," Linda said.
The lifelong bachelor was also an inveterate tinkerer, once building an organ in his apartment.
Casamento took on every task at the restaurant, with the exception of cooking. He was allergic to corn, and thus couldn't be around the fried seafood, which is dusted in corn flour. The career restaurant professional wasn't keen on spicy food or culinary exploration of any kind.
"When he evacuated for Ivan, some friends took him to an IHOP," C.J. said. "That was the first restaurant (besides Casamento's) he'd been to in 36 years."
"He loved it," Linda said.
Casamento, who turned 80 in June, evacuated with family friends to Mississippi in advance of Hurricane Katrina. He talked with his nephew from his hotel room the evening the storm throttled New Orleans.
"I could hear it in his voice, he was panicking," C.J. said. "I told him he had to calm down. He had emphysema real bad."
"He seemed really worried about the hurricane," Linda said.
"He went to sleep, and about six hours later, my sister called me," C.J. said. "The people he was with called her to say they found him dead on the floor."
Casamento's family sensed he was concerned for his restaurant and his home.
"He never lived anywhere else," Linda said, referring to 4330 Magazine Street. "He was born there, literally, and he probably would have died there if it wasn't for Katrina."
Published in The Times-Picayune