Restaurant owner John Mosca dies
John Mosca, whose white-frame Avondale restaurant is a Mecca for gourmands craving such garlic-infused specialties as barbecued shrimp, baked oysters and marinated crab salad, died Wednesday of cancer at his Harahan home. He was 86.
Even though he was Mosca's owner, Mr. Mosca (pronounced "Mow-sca") was no figurehead.
"His whole life was consumed with the restaurant, from the time he was a young man until he died," said Harahan Mayor Vinny Mosca, a nephew.
For years, Mr. Mosca, who was known to everyone as Johnny, arose at 5 a.m. to shop for what the restaurant might need that day; drop off his daughter, Lisa, at school; and do more shopping. He made sausages, his daughter said, and he used to make all the pasta and set it out on the tables to dry.
"He was always moving," she said. "It was his nature just to keep going."
At night, Mr. Mosca was at the bar, greeting customers, mixing drinks and chatting with friends.
"When you walked in, you always expected to see him," said writer Calvin Trillin, who profiled the restaurant last year in The New Yorker. "He was friendly, but not effusive. He had a dry wit, and a kind of twinkly poker face."
When Mr. Mosca sat, it was at a small table at the end of the bar, near the passageway to the kitchen.
"He was a quiet person who had a gigantic love of his customers," Vinny Mosca said. "Oftentimes, it was hard to decipher that because he was serious at the restaurant to make sure things were working properly. Every once in a while, you'd see him smile."
"He enjoyed being at the restaurant," Lisa Mosca said. "I think that's what kept him active and healthy for so long."
A native of Chicago Heights, Ill., Mr. Mosca went to high school there and worked in a restaurant, also named Mosca's, that his parents, Provino and Lisa Mosca, operated.
He served in the Army in World War II. After he was wounded in Italy, Mr. Mosca was sent to the British forces. Because of his restaurant experience, he was put to work as a waiter to high-ranking officers.
Mr. Mosca's natural reticence probably helped him get that job, Vinny Mosca said. "They knew he wouldn't discuss their business with anyone, and they respected that."
Among the people he served were Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Josip Broz Tito, leader of the Yugoslav partisans, when they met at the Villa Rivalta in Naples in 1944.
After Mr. Mosca was discharged, he moved to New Orleans to be with his parents, who had headed south because their daughter, Mary, had married Vincent Marconi, a New Orleanian.
They originally hoped to open a restaurant on the east bank, Lisa Mosca said, but that deal fell through.
They found a white building on a lonely stretch of U.S. 90 that used to be Willswood Tavern. Since they needed the income, "they were desperate, " Lisa Mosca said, "and they took it. I guess it worked out."
The bill of fare was similar to what they had offered in Illinois, but the family adapted it to take advantage of oysters, crabs and shrimp, said Mary Jo Mosca, Mr. Mosca's wife.
Portions were -- and remain -- huge, and no one grumbled about the location, slightly more than five miles west of the Huey P. Long Bridge.
"It always had the feel of a neighborhood restaurant, except there was no neighborhood," James Edmunds of New Iberia said in Trillin's New Yorker article.
Finding it in the dark could be a challenge to people making the drive from New Orleans, Trillin said. "You had to keep your eye to the left or you'd wind up in Morgan City."
When Hurricane Katrina roared through, the front part of the restaurant was relatively unscathed, Lisa Mosca said, but the back roof, which was old, caved in, forcing the family to build a new kitchen.
The building got new white siding, too, that was the same color as the material it replaced.
That was important, Mary Jo Mosca said in a 2006 interview. "Customers don't want to see change. When we stained the floor, they had a fit."
The menu has remained virtually the same during the past 65 years. The only change, Lisa Mosca said, "is now they offer half-orders."
Survivors include Mr. Mosca's wife and daughter.
Funeral arrangements, which will be handled by Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home, are incomplete.
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