Hurricane Katrina

Feeding need for hope

OCEAN SPRINGS - About the only thing left of Alberti's Italian Restaurant in Biloxi after Hurricane Katrina were two bottles of red wine and the huge concrete gorilla that served as a landmark for customers.

And in the weeks following the storm, police kept getting calls from people wanting to know if the restaurant had reopened.

"I tried to retire, but nobody would let me," says Yvonne Mallett, who relocated to Ocean Springs in January - four months after Katrina destroyed the site where she had been for 35 years.

"We've been busy every night - we love it here," she says, noting that many Coast restaurants haven't been so lucky - particularly in getting and keeping employees.

Mallett exudes a liveliness that defies age and Katrina. At 70, she still likes greeting customers, some of whom eat there several nights a week.

Like many restaurant owners, "People kept saying, 'You're the Coast, you're an icon.' It really warms you."

Now, with the old bottles of wine situated prominently on a mantel in the foyer of the new location and the gorilla chained to a sign out front, business at Alberti's is as good as ever.

The restaurant first opened a few months after Hurricane Camille in 1969. Over the years, customers became friends.

Along with her husband, Moe, 72, and their daughter, Debbie, the Malletts bought the building at 1203 Bienville Blvd. from a longtime customer.

"We've worked together to get through this," says Debbie Mallett, 52.

Inside Alberti's, Frank Sinatra sings through a crackly-sounding old stereo. All seems undisturbed by the reminders of Katrina outside - most notably the sign soliciting much-needed employees hanging just outside the door.

"It was absolute chaos," recalls Yvonne Mallett of seeing her business the day after the hurricane. "I was scared that they didn't lock the door between the lounge and the bar. Well, we got down there and found the door, but that's about all we found."

These days, the phone never stops ringing for reservations and the customers dining in the dimly-lit wings keep the orders coming.

"We've got our old memories," she says, "and now we're just making new ones over here."