Dining Out: Rocca
A new chef puts this two-year-old South End restaurant back on the city’s culinary map.
THE NEW CHEF AT ROCCA, Tiffani Faison, is doing what Todd English would be doing now if his career hadn’t exploded — if he’d remained the curious, food-loving, French-trained chef he was when restaurateur Michela Larson first hired him. Still fresh from the CIA, English cooked in Italy before he helped Larson open Michela’s. That was a long time ago — the mid-’80s — and both chef and mentor have since accomplished many things.
You know what happened to English. But what about Larson? She went on to cultivate other young talents, many of them women, and open a slew of other restaurants (Blu, Rialto, and then Rocca). And, thank heaven, she stayed here. Wherever Larson is, that’s a place you want to go.
Her newest hire, Faison, worked with English at a number of restaurants, and absorbed classic French techniques at Daniel Boulud Brasserie in the Wynn Las Vegas. Along the way she also picked up significant pasta-making skills, which serve her very well at Rocca — a restaurant inspired by Liguria, the Riviera region north of Tuscany and south of Milan. And she developed an interest in molecular gastronomy techniques, an interest she’s carried further than any other Boston chef whose food I’ve tried lately.
As for Liguria, well, that concept has been pretty loose since Rocca opened two years ago. The opening chef, Tom Fosnot, put on the menu some gestures to the region: It’s the birthplace of pesto, so there was an excellent, almost minty-fresh version made with walnuts, not pine nuts. And there was the low chickpea flatbread similar to the famous panisse or socca of Nice, as well as focaccia and fish. That regional personality is nearly gone now.
Today Rocca is the restaurant Michela’s might have evolved into, with food that’s in many ways quite similar: a seemingly Italian menu whose dishes are based on French technique. It’s far more complicated than anything you’d find in an Italian kitchen, marked by lots of butter, cream, unorthodox ingredient combinations, and restless experimentation. But if Faison is less bold than English, she’s also aiming for what he did at the start — powerful, direct, Italian-inspired flavors.
When everything comes together (which, I’d better say up front, isn’t enough of the time), she makes some powerhouse dishes. Two, in particular, stand out: pork that’s ridiculously rich and ridiculously good, and a take on lasagna that’s restrained, lightly tomatoey, and irresistible.
The pork dish ($27) plays off the current fad for packing as much sugar, fat, and salt as you can into the protein. The nominal idea is to match it with a version of mostarda, the Italian condiment of fruits boiled in mustard-spiced syrup. But the more proximate influence is David Chang’s Momofuku bars in New York. Faison smokes and braises the Berkshire pork shank and butt, then presses the meat into cubes packed with a mustardy vinegar-honey stock; these she wraps in fat, breads with panko, and deep-fries. Yeah, she likes excess. And this is blissful — the best entrée.