A restaurant family with very deep roots in New Orleans food is now setting down new ones in Gentilly.
The brothers Kelly and Calcie Fiorella are putting the finishing touches on the Original Fiorellas’ Café at 5325 Franklin Ave., amid a small commercial stretch in a part of town seeing more redevelopment lately.
“This neighborhood is building back, and I think people here want more restaurants, more New Orleans restaurants,” said Kelly Fiorella.
Both brothers grew up in Gentilly. They hope to open the Original Fiorellas’ before the end of the year, serving a menu of fried chicken, fried seafood, po-boys, Creole Italian dishes and daily specials pitched to the familiar schedule of Monday red beans and Friday shrimp Creole.
The new restaurant is the continuation of a family tradition that dates back for more than a century. Its best known chapter is Fiorella’s Cafe in the French Quarter, which is still in business under different ownership. That’s one reason the Gentilly restaurant has a slightly different name.
“It’s not the original location, but we are the original people, the original Fiorellas,” said C.J. Fiorella, the father of Kelly and Calcie who started Fiorella’s in the French Quarter.
The Fiorella family story in Louisiana starts in the early 1900s, when Angelo Fiorella immigrated from Sicily and took up farming outside Morgan City. Some of the Fiorellas’ forebears would later become subjects for photographer Fonville Winans, shown working an oyster skiff or eating in a little oyster bar in some of his better-known images.
By the 1940s, the family had a grocery called Fiorella’s Fine Foods on Clio Street in Central City. Supplying the grocery entailed regular visits to the French Market, where the Fiorellas became friends with Johnny Messina, who along with Anthony Bianca operated a little diner called Market Place Restaurant, which itself dated to the 1930s.
“You could get a half cup of coffee there for a nickel at one point,” C.J. Fiorella remembered.
In 1984, during a routine visit for a sandwich, Messina offered to sell him the restaurant, which he renamed Fiorella’s. Fried chicken became a calling card of the cafe early on, and C.J. Fiorella dubbed it “world famous” based on the variety of languages he heard spoken in his dining room on any given day from a mix of foreign visitors, French Market vendors and French Quarter denizens. In the 1990s, he expanded the restaurant with a second dining room and entrance on Decatur Street.
But by 1999, an illness in the family forced Fiorella to sell the business. The Tommaseo family of the Chalmette landmark Rocky & Carlo’s bought it, though it has changed hands several times since then. Fiorella’s would later earn a spot in New Orleans music lore. Clint Maegden, now a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, once worked at the restaurant as a bicycle delivery man, and the musician would periodically turn its dining room into an afterhours cabaret for his band the New Orleans Bingo! Show.
Kelly Fiorella, meanwhile, continued his career in the restaurant business, and returned home from a stint working in Florida in 2011. He’s now a manager at Tableau, but it wasn’t long before the idea of reviving his own family’s restaurant began to stir. Local customers would often recognize him and ask about the old Fiorella’s. When he cooked fried chicken for the pre-shift staff meal, he said, some waiters and cooks recognized the family recipe.
“I didn’t appreciate the legacy he built there until I moved back home,” Kelly said of his father. “I kept getting these nudges, like someone was trying to tell me ‘hey, go do this.’”
“Teddy’s still resonates with people, and we hope Fiorella’s will still resonate with people, too,” Kelly said.
The Original Fiorellas’ Café will be a counter service restaurant, serving 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.