On the heels of chatting with our new friend, John, the kitchen manager at Rocco's, Gothamist decided it was only right to eat at Rocco's. We managed to get a reservation this past Saturday at 9PM - "primo time" as John put it. Saturday morning, just as we started our fasting going over our list of things to try (chicken under a brick), we learned that John had been fired. What?!? Why? What was going on? Why was Rocco firing his kitchen manager, one of the most important pieces of the puzzle, a seasoned back of the house restaurant guy with 15-20 years experience?
Gothamist doesn't have all the facts yet, but, amidst the effluvia of bad reviews (zero stars from the NY Post!!) and buzz about the turnover, not to mention our own readers' thoughts, we have our hypotheses (Was John perhaps getting a little too popular, with the NY Post and Good Day New York interviewing him? Or is Rocco just whimsical and not a great manager?) and we'll see how they test out. But now our meal, besides being an an opportunity for us to see how Rocco's really is, would be an attempt to get some more information about John's dismissal from the one person who would be cranking in the kitchen with him at 6:30AM: Mama DiSpirito.
A rundown of the experience:
- Mob of out of town women taking pictures outside.
- Inside, it was humid and hot, as if the air-conditioning wasn't working.
- Restaurant buzzing with people: Basically people marginally more sophisticated than a tourist visiting the Hard Rock Cafe. Girls were slutted up, guys were slicked back. Everyone was pretty cheesy. Gothamist was disappointed. Maybe we shouldn't have been, having seen the episodes with the loud, rude clientele, but we thought that was just reality TV.
- Server was nice enough, but spacey and not too attentive.
- More senior server, who cut a dashing pony-tailed figure, started to pay attention to us, and his professionalism was breathtaking. Unsurprisingly, he had been at Union Pacific for four years. When we noted how all the tables looked to be single sex, only males or only females, he walked off. At first, Gothamist thought we had offended him. As it turns out, he actually made a round of the entire restaurant. He said, "That's funny - I thought you just meant the tables near you, but you're right." (Of course, we were, we're Gothamist.) He also said there was tons of girls, and while he'd seen "Rocco fans" at Union Pacific, this was crazy. Rocco's certainly has "the gays" and "the girls" on that night.
- Appetizers: Mama's meatballs, fried zucchini flowers, caprese. Meatballs were sublime; caprese was caprese; fried zucchini was greasy, but Gothamist guesses that's what we get when we order "fried."
- Entrees: Chicken under a brick; mixed parmagiana. Again, pretty good but greasy. We weren't sure if that was a function of the dishes' ingredients or just a problem with the actual cooking. We do know that K was ill the next morning.
- Dessert: Chocolate cassata and poached cherries with gelato. Both were heavenly. Also, the dashing server gave us some complimentary Brachetto and that's when we fell in love with him.
- Recommendation: For a Flatiron Jimmy's Downtown (when we went there, we wondered if that was a hooker waiting outside...but no, it was a dubiously dressed patron smoking outside) feel, go to Rocco's, because that's the crowd you'll get. Think Soprano's on East 22nd. Food wise, either go early for some meatballs and a drink or late to have dessert and some dessert wine, but not an entire meal.
The real excitement was when we met Mama. Seventy-eight years old and slaving her days in the kitchen and working the restaurant at night. A marvel. She came over and hugged us. A lot. After telling her how much we loved the meatballs, we asked, "Are you going to write a cookbook?" "Maybe I do! People tell me that," she said. At the very least, some sort of cooking column, Gothamist suggested. We chatted about how she was in the kitchen at 8 this morning, then we went in for the proverbial kill: "So, Mama, our friend worked here." "Oh, really?" "Yeah. John. John C---." Mama gave us a look and said, "John?" "The kitchen manager?" we offered, now realizing Mama was stalling - John had just worked there the day before. And the day before. And the day before. Mama paused, stop talking, and then said, "Oh, my throat is hurting me." Can't fool us, Mama, you're a sharp lady, we know you know something. We settled with stumping Mama and let her "rest" her throat (we do tend to respect our elders, especially elders who can cook a mean meatball). Then Mama regained her voice and lectured us about relationships ("You need trust!") and marriage.
Once we find out more, we'll post on it, but many readers are already railing against Rocco's management tactics. Till then:
- Recipe for Mama's meatballs and the process
- Rocco's "blog" on the OPEN site [Via Gawker]
- More Rocco's reviews
- Gothamist's trip to the Olive Garden, an establishment whose name has been invoked more than twice in relation to Rocco's
- Go see Gypsy on Broadway (all this talk about Mama...)