In a few months, winter will be a fading memory. The cold, biting winds will be replaced with gentle spring breezes; snow will have melted and made way for verdant grass; shoes will be stained with mud, not sidewalk salt.
Until the thaw, I won't mind warming my bones and spirit at Osteria Rocco, the Italian restaurant on Monroe Avenue. Osteria is the designation for the most simple of Italian eateries, followed by trattoria and ristorante. Chef-owner Mark Cupolo admits that, after five years of business, trattoria might now be a more appropriate term for Rocco, which he runs with partner Dan Richards.
Housed in a small brick building, Rocco has an interior that is cozy and intimate — it would almost qualify as a lovers' nook, if the non-wooing clientele weren't so boisterous. Upon entry, you find yourself right at the bar, which fills the space and offers a good assortment of Italian wines and sodas. There's a single table and a curving booth tucked next to it, facing the street. For the main dining room, walk past the narrow space running along the bar's front — on a busy night, you will have to squeeze past a line of patrons — and through a doorway to the right. Soft lighting illuminates the main dining room, votives sit at each table, hand-painted plates decorate the brick walls, and the scent of food cooking in the kitchen permeates the air.
There are about 15 tables and booths of various sizes at Rocco, set up to accommodate as many patrons as the space can hold without becoming uncomfortable. Reservations are a must for Friday and Saturday nights, and if my visit the night before New Year's Eve was any indication, it's probably a good idea to have them on weeknights, too.
Rocco's menu is neither fussy nor overly casual. The food is rooted in the cuisine of southern Italy, but Cupolo's kitchen branches out, drawing inspiration from other Italian regions as well as the thinking and style of contemporary American cooking. Take, for example, the bistecca di spalla con parmigiano bietola ($29), a sliced shoulder steak that comes with potatoes and parmesan-creamed Swiss chard. It's a dish that wouldn't be out of place on Max Chophouse's menu. (That's not a coincidence; Cupolo previously worked at Max Chophouse and the now-defunct Victor Grilling Company.) A straightforward preparation on the beef, cooked to medium rare, lets the essence of the steak take center stage. Rounds of potato are thickly cut and deeply crisped on the edges, giving contrast to a vegetable that is usually prepared to be either soft or crunchy, not both.
Similarly, the brasato al volpolicella ($24) isn't what you'd find at a typical Italian-American restaurant. Here the dish braises beef in red wine (more of a French preparation), and pairs it with sweet and sour red cabbage (Germany) and roasted potatoes (America). Yet there's a tie back to Italy with the dish's volpolicella, which is both a wine-growing region in northeast Italy and the name of its eponymous product.
There are, however, a number of dishes that are immediately recognizable as Italian. A side order of linguini e peperoni ($6) is a simple paring of about two cups of linguini with roasted peppers. Olive oil, infused with the peppers' sweetness, clings to each strand of pasta and flavors each bite richly. Though the kitchen is generous with the oil, the dish is not oily — it's almost creamy in mouthfeel. Rapini con aglio e pepperonci ($6) is a mound of darkly verdant greens. The rapini's bitterness is offset by the salt of the parmesan cheese, and is made more complex and piquant with the addition of garlic and chili flakes. These are just the kind of greens to shake you from the winter doldrums.
Aside from the linguine e peperoni, there are only four other pasta dishes on the menu: linguine alle vongole (linguine with clam sauce, $20), pasta artigianali con polpette (artisanal pasta with meatballs in tomato sauce, $17); lasagne alla pizzaiola (lasagna including béchamel and simple tomato sauces, $18), and gnocchi alla romana ($15). Gnocchi alla romana are not the soft potato-based pasta nuggets common on Italian restaurant menus. These gnocchi are small patties made with semolina, which is frequently used to make pasta. Served six to a chafing dish, each gnocco resembles a jumbo sea scallop, with small, roasted tomatoes nestled between them. With brown tops and bottoms, they are creamy and gently chewy in texture, like polenta, and flavored with butter and parmesan cheese. Despite their size, the gnocco are very satisfying, and would be even more so if a few more umami-rich tomatoes accompanied them.
Other recommended dishes include the house-marinated olives ($5), a generous dish of olives, the best of which are the size of small plums; polpette ($8), three meatballs made with a blend of beef, pork, and veal served with tomato sauce and a slice of bread; funghi e fontina di aoste ($15), a Neapolitan-style pizza with a paper-thin crust, loaded with mushrooms and topped with fontina cheese and white-truffle oil. For the latter dish, slices are cut by diners with a pair of kitchen shears, and are meant to be eaten either with a knife and fork, or folded and held by hand. The butterscotch budino ($7), a creamy butterscotch pudding topped with a warm butterscotch sauce and toasted, salted almonds, should also not be missed.
The dish that I have not stopped thinking about, however — the dish that makes my mouth water as I type these words — is the ricotta ($9). Listed on the menu as "house made ricotta/charred bread/olive oil," the simplicity of the description belies the impact of the dish's flavor. Extra-virgin olive oil swirls on the plate around the cheese, and thick slices of Baker Street semolina bread are toasted and ready to be spread with the ricotta. As for the ricotta, it is mild, cool, and creamy. In a word: heavenly. It is made with milk from Pittsford Farms Dairy that is so fresh and vibrant, as are the herbs that top the dish, that the taste is not just delicious, but holds with it the promise of spring. That's a promise we're deeply in need of in the depths of February.
Note: City Newspaper contributing writer Dayna Papaleo is employed at Osteria Rocco. She did not, nor did anyone connected with the restaurant, have any advanced knowledge of or influence on this review.
165 Monroe Ave.
Lunch Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner Monday-Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.