John Mosca, at 86; was icon of cuisine in Louisiana

John Mosca with his wife and daughter in the two-room roadhouse restaurant (below), 40 minutes from New Orleans. John Mosca with his wife and daughter in the two-room roadhouse restaurant (below), 40 minutes from New Orleans. (Matt Rose/Times-Picayune)
By Kim Severson
New York Times / July 21, 2011

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NEW YORK - When John Mosca set a bowl of blue crab claws drenched in garlicky Italian dressing on the bar at the Louisiana restaurant that bears his family name, he would not say much. He did not need to.

Customers fortunate enough to have found their way to Mosca’s, west of New Orleans, and to be sitting at the bar when such a gift arrived knew there was history in that bowl.

With a poker face and sly humor, Mr. Mosca presided over a roadhouse restaurant as humble as it was in demand.

He died at his home in suburban Harahan, La., on July 13. He was 86 and had prostate cancer, said his daughter, Lisa.

It is a rare student of southern Louisiana food who has not ventured out of New Orleans and taken the 40-minute drive over the Huey P. Long Bridge to Mosca’s, there to nurse a whiskey sour while a member of the family baked Gulf oysters in bread crumbs and set chicken in a frying pan for a simple but much-studied dish, chicken a la grande.

“It’s an iconic symbol of why Louisiana food is what it is,’’ Poppy Tooker, a New Orleans culinary personality, said of Mosca’s. “When you stumble across it, you feel like you have discovered a secret. But it is a secret the whole world knows about, because the whole world has come through the door.’’

That includes writer Calvin Trillin. In November, he wrote a loving article in The New Yorker about the place and how it had resisted change.

“He struck me as a man whose life was intertwined with his family and his family business,’’ Trillin said in an interview after hearing of Mr. Mosca’s death. “It was always a great pleasure to come out of the darkness that surrounded the restaurant and find him at the door.’’

Mr. Mosca was born in Chicago Heights, Ill., and worked in his parents’ restaurant there. The parents, Provino and Lisa Mosca, moved the family to Louisiana in 1946 and replicated their restaurant in a clapboard building that served as the home.

Mr. Mosca joined them after serving in the infantry during World War II. He had been wounded by shrapnel in Italy, eventually earning two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.

He immediately went to work in the family restaurant. His wife, Mary Jo, who survives him, took over the kitchen while Mr. Mosca came to be the patriarch of the dining room, delighting guests with his wry stories.

The restaurant survived more than just changes in culinary fashion. Storms have battered it, most recently Hurricane Katrina, which damaged the kitchen so badly that it took 10 months to reopen. Air-conditioning was added, but the cash-only policy, the menu, and the jukebox, which Trillin noted was heavy on Louis Prima, remain the same.