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Dinner at Rocco’s.

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Dinner at Rocco’s.

Pantagruel | Dec 1, 2003 03:20 PM

This is a follow-up to a posting (Nov. 18) on the Not About Food board, wherein I complained that a visiting relative insisted on eating at this storied place, and that it turned out the second season was being filmed the night we had a reservation.

In spite of excellent advise from respondents, I wasn’t able to fake an illness serious enough to prevent me from accompanying my wife, her sister, and her sister’s husband. So here (from someone who has never critiqued a restaurant) goes:

The carnival atmosphere of Rocco’s was underscored by a booth set up outside the door to have diners sign a release form. I was too rushed to read the fine print, but assume it had me state that any indignity captured on film could be disseminated throughout the free world. The indignity actually started with this form: it required a social security number. This had apparently been objected to by other diners, since the booth staff allowed us to use driver’s license or passport numbers instead.

The restaurant wasn’t full, but the camera and sound crews, along with the boisterousness of some staff and diners, made it seem like a final at Madison Square Garden. Fortunately, our waiter was relaxed and friendly. He made a point of informing us how famous Mamma’s meatballs are, and warning us that the stories in “La Gazzetta di Rocco” (the verso of the menu) were not real news stories (the lead was about the annual White House Thanksgiving ritual with the following: “This year’s turkey pardoning is especially hilarious considering it fell on the same day the sniper was sentenced to death.”).

There was no sign of Rocco himself at this early seating, and part of the menu was devoted to a guest chef from the DiSpiritos’ ancestral hometown in Campania. I avoided this part, since I wanted the “Rocco’s experience.” Maybe having failed to fake a disease convincing enough to keep me home, I wanted to induce a real one.

My appetizer of fried zucchini ($5) had extremely thin slices that were unevenly battered and too greasy. The oil tasted slightly “pre-owned,” although not rancid. Caesar salad ($9) and beets with walnuts and gorgonzola ($10) didn’t create much excitement, but we all got to taste a starter portion of the meatballs ($8). Here’s my verdict: very finely ground, moist, strong parmesan taste, nicely seasoned but not spectacular. I did not hear celestial voices upon tasting them. What we did hear was the decidedly uncelestial voice of the enormous maitre d’ singing a tribute to Mamma, whom he followed around like Moby Dick shadowing the Pequod. If any footage of my party makes it to the small screen, it will probably show us gaping in astonishment and horror at this spectacle.

The main course for me was orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage ($15). The pasta was, let’s say, a little too al dente. OK, it was undercooked. The sausage, sans casing, had the opposite problem: it was rubbery and not too interesting in flavor. The greens were perfectly done, and the whole dish had the right amount of olive oil and seasoning. Other dishes were black sea bass ($23), spaghetti with Mamma’s meatballs ($17) and one offering by the guest chef of ravioli di ricotta with black truffles and walnuts ($25). I tasted none of these, and the comments from my fellow diners were too general to be worth mentioning.

I wish we could have perked up this meal with more wine, but the selections were so hideously overpriced that we stuck with one bottle.

For dessert, the $7 zeppole were just right, as good as I’ve ever had at the San Gennaro festival. I wasn’t able to hear any comments about the other choices, however, because at that moment the maitre d’, with Mamma at his side, took it upon himself to serenade a table that was apparently having a raucous farewell party, since the main lyric was “adio.” I think we’ll get to see plenty of this gentleman during the broadcasting, both temporally and dimensionally.

The meal came to around $270. The term “common wisdom” is often used disdainfully to mean the uninformed opinion of the herd. But I have to say that the consensus on Rocco’s, which is that the only thing outstanding about it is its prices, was supported by my experience. I guess watching the show being made was out of the ordinary, but it would have been more palatable to have been paid as an extra than to have paid to be grist for the Rocco celebrity mill.

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