A Riviera Runs Through It
With veteran restaurateur Michela Larson at the helm, new South End hot spot Rocca charts a course through the flavors of coastal Italian cuisine.
Rocca is the first Boston restaurant to highlight the food of Liguria, the Italian Riviera. The region’s definitive English-language cookbook, by Fred Plotkin, is called Recipes from Paradise for good reason: Liguria is the home of pesto and focaccia and olive oil so fine they recall those of its French neighbor, Provence. The best of the south of France with the best of the north of Italy—what could be better?
But this isn’t why Rocca was so long anticipated or has been so popular since it opened on the South End’s Harrison Avenue this spring. Rocca is the newest venture of restaurateur extraordinaire Michela Larson and her longtime partners from her Rialto years, Gary Sullivan and Karen Haskell. Seeing Larson back at a check stand and circulating among tables, every bit as beautiful and ebullient as when she debuted the original Michela’s in 1985, feels like the big number from Hello, Dolly!—except she’s the one saying hello.
The ceilings at Rocca are dramatically lofty; in the main dining room, upstairs, the brick walls are interrupted by ceiling-high mirrors, flatteringly angled to make you appear thin. For artwork, there are odd rope knots. The nautical theme recalls Liguria’s fishing origins, I guess, as does a lighted channel that curves along the ceiling and whose colors change every so often—now you think you’re underwater, now in a red-light district.
The cream of the South End found Rocca right away. “Wall-to-wall beautiful men,” friends reported a few weeks in. It’s exciting to be there, and the spirited noise levels make it seem hipper yet. Lately, the crowd has become more heterogeneous, thanks in part to the free parking, which pulls in a suburban contingent. Everyone gets a warm welcome—a Larson group trademark—and the friendliness and skill of the staff was as striking when I wasn’t recognized as when Larson, an old friend, was at the door.
While Rocca’s menu may aim to capture the essence of Liguria, at heart it offers big, saucy, generic Italian food of the kind that has captivated Boston diners since Michela’s introduced Todd English to the world (after Larson, who discovered him, sent him on a tour of northern Italy). But that’s not to say the portions here are overly large—in fact they’re surprisingly restrained, which makes the prices a bit less of a bargain than they might seem. Nor are there way too many things on a plate, as English became (and remains) notorious for.
Much of the food is carefully and sometimes painstakingly constructed. An example is an appetizer of poached fresh sardines lightly marinated in lemon and hot Fresno pepper ($9). The combination of lemon, radish, and mint in the marinade is “magical,” the chef, Tom Fosnot, told me, and I agree. (Fosnot, a Larson veteran, was Jody Adams’s sous chef at Rialto and took over at Blu after Dante de Magistris made his stunning debut there.)
Overall, though, flavors are more melded than distinct, another Larson group trademark. This works beautifully in anything with Fosnot’s gemlike pesto, the flagship sauce of Liguria. The one true way to make pesto is to pound the basil, nuts, and oil by hand, which is what Fosnot told me he does. This method keeps the basil a vibrant grass green, as if shocked into releasing its brightest notes straight into the sauce. The basil here is both gentle and authoritative, as it is in Liguria—it’s often much too strong in America, but the basil Fosnot gets from the passionate Eva Sommaripa of Eva’s Garden, in paradisal South Dartmouth (the Liguria of Massachusetts), seems just right. Proper pesto is so vivid you want to spread it over minestrone with plenty of diced vegetables, or atop a deep-flavored fish stew. Ligurians do all that and so does Fosnot, giving life to an otherwise ordinary, if nicely fresh, vegetable minestrone with white beans ($8) and spooning it in place of aioli over the Ligurian fish stew burrida ($21), heavy on good Wellfleet clams from the highly regarded Pat Woodbury.
Fosnot also combines pesto with potatoes and green beans for the most traditional, and to my mind most accomplished, offering at Rocca: mafaldine alla genovese ($10), dried ribbon pasta in a sauce made substantial with potato water—a broth almost as miraculous in its thickening properties as pasta water, and much used in wheat-poor Liguria (whose climate is too cool for that crop, though it’s what makes for that wonderfully delicate olive oil). Savvy diners know to order the trofie, handmade corkscrew pasta characteristic of the region, not just with the listed pesto ($10) but also with potatoes and green beans, which makes it more authentic and even better: Pesto on potatoes is as revelatory as pesto on pasta.
When Fosnot lets his instincts run free, the results are more successful than his sometimes constrained Ligurian excursions. He marinates fresh scampi—typically associated with Venice, on the other side of Italy—in marjoram, mint, and orange ($13), made piquant with Fresno pepper and cooled with a bed of shaved fennel salad. He also offers his own variation on the burger: “sliders” ($6)—actually, light-textured Italian meatballs with provolone, tomatoes, and basil—complemented by superior fries with pesto mayonnaise ($5). These are concessions to the neighborhood, he told me; they make great bar food, and feel relaxed.
The meat course in Italy is usually a one-note affair, and a brown and tough one at that, particularly in seafood-focused Liguria. So Fosnot basically makes his up. Best are the nicely rosy slices of grilled leg of lamb accompanied by escarole and fava bean pesto ($24) and the hanger steak with olive butter ($22), the meat a bit chewy but the roasted fingerlings with rosemary quite good. The most Ligurian-looking main course is the whole roasted branzino with olives, potatoes, tomatoes, and pine nuts ($24), served in a dramatically wide two-handled iron baking dish. It was both simple and richly flavored, and left me wishing more restaurants would follow Rocca’s lead—fish never tastes so succulent as when eaten off the bone.
Desserts, a lesser consideration in Italy, are cause for racing pulses at Rocca. (The oddly scanty wine list, though, seems like an afterthought, or a work in progress.) Ruth-Anne Adams, Fosnot’s wife and herself an accomplished chef (long at Casablanca), developed the recipes, and two are absolutely terrific: almond bark ($9), a crunchy almond cookie with a thin meringue topping accompanied by a pool of rum-spiked chocolate dipping sauce; and pacciugo di Portofino ($9), a huge gelato and sorbet sundae served parfait style in a tall, fat glass. The creamy strawberry and vanilla gelati, made in New Hampshire, are lightened with lemon sorbet, enriched with whipped cream, and topped with strawberry sauce and crushed amaretti. The result is hard to resist—and why should you? B