The announcement on January 12 that Matassa’s would be closing sent a shock wave through the French Quarter. The place had been around for nearly 100 years, after all. For a century, Matassa’s was an anchor in the lives of French Quarter residents, serving the two fundamental needs of Quarter Rats: cheap booze and food (usually in that order). But more than that, Matassa’s had become an institution, a symbol of the French Quarter’s stubborn resilience in the midst of a changing neighborhood. Denizens of the Quarter, therefore, exhaled a great sigh of relief when it was announced on January 18, less than a week after it closed, that Matassa’s would, in fact, reopen in about a month.
Matassa’s opened in 1924 when the lower French Quarter was called “Little Palermo” because of all the Sicilian immigrants who occupied the neighborhood. According to the 1910 census, 80% of French Quarter residents were Sicilian. Giovanni “John” Matassa was one of those Sicilians.In addition to the corner grocery, he also opened a record and appliance store at the corner of N. Rampart and Dumaine Streets. Later, his son Cosimo would operate a recording studio in theback room of the store. Cosimo Matassa would eventually be inducted into the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame for recording artists such as: Fats Domino, Little Richard, Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair, Lee Dorsey, Lloyd Price, Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Shirley and Lee, Smiley Lewis, Ray Charles, Bobby Charles, The Spiders, Big Joe Turner and Aaron Neville, Frankie Ford, Al Johnson, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, and others.
But the name Matassa would not only find its way into music history, it would also etch itself into New Orleans LGBT+ history as well. Cosimo’s father Johnny eventually opened a bar adjacent to his market on St. Phillip Street. By the early 1970s, it was a favorite of a group of friends that would go on to found what has come to be known as Southern Decadence.
Robert Laurent recalls the second Southern Decadence party in 1973: “I thought it would be outlandish for all of us to first meet at Matassa’s in full costume and then parade back to Belle Reve for the party. To my surprise, everyone was in complete agreement. They thought it would be a sensation, and that’s just what we did. Before the second annual party, revelers met at the bar as decadent luminaries … We then all marched up the Esplanade Avenue median to the old house. Along the way, we stopped at the Rampart Street bars as well as some in the Treme District.”
In subsequent years, as the focus of Southern Decadence shifted from the house party to the parade, Johnny Matassa’s bar was the starting point. When the bar closed, the parade’s starting point moved to the Golden Lantern bar, where it remains to this day. For decades, Matassa’s survived as other neighborhood markets and delis faded away. Yet even before the pandemic, business had begun to decline. In 2016, Louis Matassa almost sold the business. Instead, Louis brought in Vincent Catalanotto, Jr., as a partner. The interior of the store got a facelift and neighbors were relieved that the institution would remain open. But then came COVID.
After closing their doors for what very well could have been the last time, Matassa and Catalanotto leased the building to Richard Djapni, a businessman from Monroe who owns several grocery stores and pharmacies throughout Louisiana. Adrian Nagy, who has successfully revitalized other small independent groceries, will oversee the rebirth of Matassa’s. In addition to major renovations, Nagy plans on adding a coffee bar while expanding the store’s inventory to focus on local products. Also in the works is a timeline of the store’s history accompanied by vintage photographs.