Welcome to the old world
Rocco sets the standard for Rochester Italian
165 Monroe Ave.
There are ten tables in the Rocco dining room. On a recent Monday night, one of those tables was occupied by some of the most brilliant scientific minds in the country, who work to cure cancer at the University of Rochester. A circular table in the corner window was filled with a group of thirty-something female business owners enjoying a rare night off. Other tables held restaurant industry workers—a bartender here with his two small children, a restaurateur there with his wife and a friend. At another table, a two-top, sat the new writers of (585) magazine’s restaurant review column (OK, that was us).
Each of those ten tables, plus the barroom seating out front, housed a story that night. Each of the hundreds of eateries in the (585) region houses one, too. Collectively, we’ve spent years telling stories relating to food and drink, a topic that brings people together more consistently—and deeply—than anything else. Rocco was a natural first review pick for us, because not only is Chef Mark Cupolo a quietly influential force in the local food scene, the restaurant is also a respected favorite of many industry folks.
P: We drove separately that night—I came in through the front, right into the barroom, which is all candles and close seating—and that classic scent of rich, slow-simmered Italian food is everywhere. Rich reds and greens echo the ingredients in what’s coming out of the kitchen, with pops of bright tulips and orchids around the dining room. You came in the back, I think—did it feel like going in a secret, speakeasy entrance to you? It always feels that way to me.
L: A speakeasy, perhaps—but the dimly lit hallway and alleyway leading to it remind me more of little-known Italian joints in big cities, the kind a neighborhood likes to keep secret from tourists and food writers. (Guilty.) Rocco also reminds me of old-world Italian spots where no one speaks English—thankfully, they do here—and the food is very reminiscent of that as well.
P: Agreed. Everyone who walks through is folded into the secret, no questions asked. And part of that secret is Italian food that stands out in a city with a rich immigrant history and the cuisine to show for it. But before we get ahead of ourselves. Drinks. Negroni, my broni. (Sorry, that won’t happen again.) The menu’s standard Negroni is served in a hefty rocks glass with an orange twist, not flamed. I prefer this because flaming the orange does add an additional element to an already perfectly balanced three-part drink. Rocco’s signature Negroni is a touch lighter, with bubbles, an Americano with a bit more authority and strong note of citrus.
P: Some people count sheep. Leah counts toast points. While Rocco is ideal for a romantic dinner for two, bringing a couple friends carries a certain amount of wisdom—namely, you can try more food. As it was just us, I volunteered my diet as tribute and cut in (with traditional pizza shears) to the funghi e fontina pizza, a mushroom and fontina cheese pizza drizzled with white truffle oil. Rochester’s bar for thin-crusted, top-shelf-topping pizza has raised ever higher since Rocco opened, with places like Fiorella, Fiamma Centro, Branca, Swan Dive, and Radio Social slinging pies. But this offering holds up to the changing landscape, which became a running theme to our meal. No matter what’s going on outside, Rocco remains a constant standard of quality.
L: Entrees are difficult to choose at Rocco, because the entire menu sounds tempting. (I also tend to get food envy if someone at my table orders something more delicious.) We taught in Italy for several weeks last year and became familiar with much of the cuisine language, so I knew polpette (meatballs) on the side of whatever I ordered was a must. The meatballs at Rocco are packed with breadcrumbs, herbs, and diced onion. Two come in a side order, soaking in a homemade red sauce that was bright, comforting, hot, and filling. I also ordered the semolina gnocchi, which isn’t typical gnocchi—this vegan dish comes with five triangles of gnocchi that are closer in size to a small piece of pie, smothered in roasted tomato, herbs, butter, and pecorino. Full disclosure: I ate about one-third of it, and the leftovers saved me from a sad desk lunch the next day.
P: With so much to offer in the carb category, meat can seem a second fiddle on Rocco’s menu, but that’s a mistake. My plate was heavy with the maiale cotto a fuoco lento, a small hill of slow-cooked pork accompanied by fried polenta and soft, salty rapini. While these three flavors complemented each other extremely well, I enjoyed focusing on one sector of my plate at a time because the texture and profile of each was so distinct. The pork was cooked down into a supple and well-seasoned helping with the perfect quotient of fat incorporated. The polenta represented a totally different texture, with crispy fried exterior while nearly cake-soft inside. The star of the plate, however, was the rapini. It walked the tightrope of soft-firm so hard to get right in leafy greens and maintained that balance in a round charred flavor with a perfect snap of salt.
Dessert was an unnecessary but nevertheless welcome, exclamation point on the meal. The butterscotch budino is a popular house specialty, and for good reason. It’s a trumpet of caramel flavor with a small handful of almonds roosting in the rich pudding. Resolve to take a lot home or have firm commitments from all members of your table to do their part, as this is a very decadent dessert capping off a very rich meal.
L: The budino is not usually my dessert of choice, because Rocco makes the best panna cotta in the city. Unfortunately, it wasn’t on the menu the night we visited.
Rocco is a must visit for Rochesterians—a stunning, unassuming ode to our city’s storied Italian heritage, mixed with a pinch of big city and a handful of Old-World Italy. In addition to dinner service, it also serves lunch on Fridays and hosts the occasional wine pairing dinner. To stay up to date, like Rocco on Facebook or visit roccorochester.com.
Leah Stacy and Pete Wayner are food- and beverage-centric content creators based in Rochester.