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April 1st, 2004

Rocco’s Restaraunt Review

by Sara Goff

Two restaurants. One name. Only a street fight could settle this score. Call it the Rocco rumble, if you will. It’s Rocco on Thompson Street vs. Rocco’s on 22nd Street. Identity and tradition are at stake. And a lot of mixed-up dinner reservations. Forget the lawsuit started by Rocco on Thompson Street in June claiming his restaurant’s name was being used without permission. This is about where you want to eat and why?╔é─ýso Rocco and Rocco, roll up your sleeves and show us your best shot, and may the best old-time Italian eatery win.

In the right-hand corner we have Rocco on Thompson, opened in 1922 by Rocco Stanziano, Chef to the Kings of Italy. Current Chef/Owner, Tony DaSilva, prepares homemade-style southern food and daily regional specials passed down over the years. His claim to fame: loyal customers.

In the left-hand corner, Rocco’s on 22nd, opened last year by Rocco DiSpirito, Chef/Owner of Union Pacific, and his partner Jeffrey Chodorow, of Asia de Cuba, China Grill and more recently, Tuscan. These two restaurateurs are among the greats in Manhattan. They come to the ring with money and power.

Rocco on Thompson starts the fight weakly. D?╔└▄cor. The first of two dining rooms is more reminiscent of a sitting room in a Fellini movie than that of a New York Restaurant. Directly behind the bar is the kitchen from which waiters scurry to and fro carrying trays of food and wine with an air of intensity-they mean business.

Chandeliers with mismatched bulbs, cupboards scattered with curio, tin ceilings painted eggshell, and renaissance style paintings on the walls. Overwrought coat racks in the corner offer the only real color in the dining room, depending on what guests are wearing. Waiting to be greeted by Mr. DaSilva, feeling self-conscious in everyone’s way, there’s some doubt about what to expect.

In terms of ambiance, Rocco’s on 22nd is throwing punches left and right. Watch out Old-timer on Thompson, they’re reckless. The appeal here is ego-the chance to say, “Look mom, I’m on TV!” Of course, you make a reservation when The Restaurant is being taped since the craze here is NBC’s reality show. Signing a waiver under a red tent outside the restaurant only adds to the thrill-who cares that it reads ?╔Č┤no cell phones allowed, among other electronic equipment, including cameras.’ You understand that your belongings are subject to search and readily give up your social security number, address, telephone number and birth date. Someone stamps your wrist and you’re in.

The interior packs punch, and you might even feel like a hitter. The lights are bright, and there’s a wall of glass beads cascading over a mural boasting a view of the Bay of Naples. There’s a bit of red and green trimming the ceiling, brass details on the wood paneled walls, black leather booths and marble mosaic tile floors. You feel good in DiSpirito’s world; maybe it’s the young boys playing a fierce game of foosball, or the original Zum Val orange squeezer behind the sprawling bar. But a plastic Madonna? Never mind, you’re seated and a camera crew swarms in. “Act normal,” they coach and start shooting.

Round I: 1 minute and 3 seconds. Winner:: Rocco’s on 22nd

Now is when the real fight begins. Tony at Rocco on Thompson warmly shakes your hand-if you’re a regular it’s a hug-and shows you to your seat. The essence of Italian dinning is here: You’re treated like family. This even beats the less than hip crowd -with this Rocco’s on 22nd swings and misses. “It’s about feeling appreciated, not exploited,” says Tony DaSilva-coming back with a low blow-Oh! Rocco’s on 22nd takes a hit below the belt.

Rocco on Thompson doesn’t need fancy footwork, not when you’re looking at his menu with wide eyes. And at least ten regional specials spanning Italy are scribbled on a chalkboard suspended from the ceiling. It is barely legible, but that’s not a problem since your waiter, in salivating detail, passionately describes each dish to you. If choice empowers, Rocco on Thompson rules. If you’re really lucky, there’s a juicy roast rack of lamb on the list of specials. If not, there’s always a boneless grilled New York 16-ounce sirloin for $22, said to be tender every time.

At Rocco on Thompson there are seven different veal dishes, starting at $15, and five flavorful options for chicken, starting at $13. On the seafood menu, there’s a healthy portion of red snapper for $18 prepared in Rocco’s secret red sauce with enough black olives, capers, onions and tomatoes, for every mouthful. The zuppa di pesce-mixed seafood in a fradiavolo sauce and over pasta (if you wish)-is the most expensive seafood dish at $21, but what a value! Or simply go for the jumbo shrimp in your favorite sauce, just $16. You’re likely to return for the homemade gnocchi gorgonzola and most definitely for the garlic grilled calamari served with white beans and baby greens. This fight’s got zest, and Rocco on Thompson is back with a flurry of hits.

Rocco DiSpirito, the showman that he is, steps into the ring with a cute daily menu printed on pink paper, the color of bubblegum or Pepto-Bismol. But cute can’t parry the punches coming from Thompson Street. The limited menu doesn’t stand, not on sub-par dishes. On any given day, there could be just four plates of fish-the sea bass criticized for being salty-and only eight pasta dishes-the cream sauce said to be too oily. Some nights, you’ll find a lone veal dish and a couple of options for chicken, hailed as safe. The $26 rib eye is tough and grisly, and knowing this you might be leery of the $28 strip steak, reviewed most generously by Adam Platt on New York Metro.com as bland. Fighting for more flavor is the rabbit cacciatore seeped in olives, tomatoes and onions, backed by the trout stuffed with shallots and parsley. While Rocco’s on 22nd may be causing a stir, his hits just aren’t connecting.

Rocco’s Mama, Nicolina DiSpirito, has no part of this boxing match as she flits about the Thompson Street restaurant in her white kitchen apron spreading motherly love-and her meatballs are a killer. But Rocco’s calamari is a hefty handicap as this appetizer bears to mind deep fried onion rings. A businessman said it best when a handful of squid was slung on a scale beside the bar-too much information. He recommends the veal spedini prepared with grilled tomatoes, instead.

Round 2: 1 hour and 10 minutes. In terms of food, it’s unanimous: Rocco on Thompson

How sweet the taste of victory can be after a long, hard brawl, but the bell hasn’t resonated its final toll, yet. The Old Champ and the Young Buck are neck-and-neck serving up their desserts. Rocco on Thompson’s summer trophy is his cold zabaglione, a sweet cream sauce over fresh strawberries, and throughout the winter months, his caramel roasted pears. The filled-to-order cannoli does not hold back, and there’s no question, the ricotta cheesecake is homemade. However Rocco’s on 22nd isn’t ready to go home just yet and hurls a heavy left hook-with poached cherries on butter cakes, called pandoros. He’s lobbing jab after jab with a variety of homemade gelato, and a powerful uppercut-his chocolate cassata, a splendor of crispy ladyfingers over creamy chocolate-mousse-to take down Rocco on Thompson.

In the final seconds, service counts and while the wait at Rocco on Thompson is caused by the kitchen meticulously preparing your meal, the wait at Rocco’s on 22nd could be because their computer system is down or your waiter is smiling for the camera.

A knockout is imminent as perks leave a lasting impression and here Rocco on Thompson rises for the final bout, leaving Rocco on 22nd in the dust. If you celebrate your birthday at Rocco on Thompson, the cake is on the house. And as you find yourself coming back for more, Tony will be happy to make you a succulent limoncello just for being loyal.

Round 3: 50 minutes. Champion: Rocco on Thompson Street

Rocco on Thompson Street shines, deservingly so, but the clincher is this: When you leave Rocco’s on 22nd, ears ringing and a bit dazed, tasting salt and feeling all that oil, you’re thinking how badly you embarrassed yourself on camera. When you leave Rocco on Thompson, after a hearty pat on the back or even a kiss on the cheek, you turn to your loved one, satisfied, and say, “That was a good meal!”

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