Monday, March 3, 2008

Livin' La Vida Rocca

Rocca has widely been hailed by local foodies as one of the South End’s finest, hippest new dining destinations. Its free parking, for one, is a rare luxury that had me at hello. What about the food, you ask? When Rocca opened up its doors on Harrison Avenue back in April, 2007, some observers quibbled that it could easily have been mistaken for an upscale tapas bar given its miniscule portions. Nearly a year later, however, chef Tom Fosnot has apparently taken his cue from these customers, expanding both his menu items and portion sizes. Would his Ligurian-inspired (Italian Riviera) cuisine rival - and perhaps exceed – that belonging to his esteemed South End counterparts (such as Mistral and Stella)?

My wife and I venture out on chilly Sunday evening to sample Rocca’s aptly-named, uber-affordable prixe-fix menu as part of its Sunday Supper series, in which two courses and ‘sweet’ register at a wallet-friendly $22. Unless you’ve been locked away in a closet, it’s no secret that several upscale Boston eateries have recently created these cheaper dining alternatives with the hope of attracting additional customers during these difficult economic times.

Upon our arrival, Rocca is shockingly devoid of customers. The restaurant’s two-story interior, with eye-popping features that include cork walls and graffiti, is sleek and modern. Its lower level consists solely of a smallish bar/lounge area replete with plush sofas. Although this area is clearly a spot to which attractive people flock during the week, it lacks the visual panache, polish, and ‘it’ factor which makes neighboring Stella’s bar/lounge area superiorly vibrant (might this be where all of the patrons have congregated this evening?).

We proceed upstairs to the larger, more dramatic dining room. An illuminated light that fluctuates between colors flows across the ceiling like water down a riverbed. The general layout of this room, however, remains a mystery. Why not let the room breathe easily (similar to the overhead lighting) in an open space as opposed to partitioning it off into different sections? The antique movie posters and ropes attached to some of the walls violently clash with the otherwise modern ambience that permeates throughout the room.

Minor fashion faux-pas aside, let’s focus on the food, shall we? Parched with thirst, I order a cocktail coyly named ‘Scandolo al Sole,’ a unique concoction of homemade limoncello, tequila, grand marnier, and ginger beer. The mild sweet and sour flavor I am seeking from this beverage, however, is unfortunately wiped away by the overpowering acidity attributed to excess amounts of ginger beer.

More to my liking is a hearty portion of sweet and sour calamari, and not merely the doughy and overly saucy variety you’d typically expect to see in similar settings. These calamari are lightly breaded and interlaced with red and yellow peppers that infuse the dish with its sweet and sour flavors. This appetizer is so delectable, in fact, that the accompanying tartar sauce seems unnecessary. My wife and I also devour a silky, light farinata – chickpea flatbread with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and sage – served pie-like and reminiscent of a top-notch potato latke.

We move on to our entrée, which consists of veal cheeks served over saffron risotto. Although noticeably smaller in portion size than the preceding appetizer, the veal is deceptively rich in flavor and equally hearty. Though a tad on the fatty side (these are veal cheeks, after all), the meat is otherwise cooked to our liking and literally melts in our mouths. Although the accompanying risotto fails to surpass Mistral’s award-winning recipe (whose does?) given some goopy excess liquid, it adequately serves as a light, zesty compliment to the veal.

Our dessert, or ‘treat,’ is equally divine, though on a smaller scale portion-wise. A playful take on the ice cream sandwich – dense vanilla ice cream packed between two moist mini chocolate chip cookies, served with a warm dark chocolate dipping sauce - is far superior than the one I’d purchased on many occasions as a child from the local ice cream truck.

As for intangibles, Rocca passes with flying colors. Service exceeds my expectations, as our waitress, though not the most animated of servers, is competent, knowlegable of the menu, and attentive to our needs. In terms of cleanliness, not a breadcrumb is to be found, not even up the lengthy stairwell (though I will say that the men’s room is surprisingly chilly). And did I forget to praise Rocca’s easy-to-find location and conveniently situated free parking lot (hello, $15)?
Lastly, for sheer value, where else can one consume a three-course gourmet meal for $22 (Sunday evenings only)? Irrespective of Sunday offerings, Rocca’s appetizers weigh in between $8-$12, pastas average $12-$16, fish and meat entrees range from $19-$24, and desserts come in at $7-$9. Perhaps other universally respected but utterly pricey South End institutions such as Mistral and Hammersley’s Bistro would be wise to follow suit (ahem, $40 entrees, anyone?). Or perhaps Paul’s Palate is merely livin’ la via Rocca?

No comments: