Rocco’s Pub & Grub is a small gem of a restaurant, nearly flawless. The food created here by Chef Antonio DaCosta is outrageously good. DaCosta is young, but oh so talented. He comes from a restaurant family, honed his skills for a time in Europe, and was the head chef at CAV before moving over to Rocco’s. Add to that the friendly service, and you’ll want to return again and again.
Rocco’s consists of one room, just about equally divided between the bar and the dining area, which is made up mostly of comfortable pub-height tables. One wall is covered with artistic graffiti. On a recent Tuesday night, the place was pretty full, and we were lucky to snag a table for four at the far end, offering us a view into the semi-open kitchen.
We had looked at the menu online so we were ready to order, starting with the Pommes Souffle ($6.95), Eggplant Gratin ($7.95) and Rocco’s Riblets ($9.95). The menu described the Pommes Souffle as crisp potato puffs, but I would describe them more as delicate house-made potato chips. They were served with a salty Gorgonzola and white truffle dipping sauce. We devoured every single chip. Served in a cast iron loaf pan, the Eggplant Gratin consisted of layers of fried eggplant, whipped ricotta and sweet Italian sausage flavored with the house tomato sauce, fresh herbs, capers and mozzarella cheese. This dish tasted fine, but it was a little mushy.
Rocco’s Riblets were the big winner among the appetizers on our table. An oblong platter held a pile of tender braised baby ribs. These were spareribs that had been marinated in an exotic mixture of hoisin sauce, sambal, soy sauce, brown sugar and garlic. In a complex two-day process, the chef sears the ribs, bakes them for at least three hours, and then fries them quickly before serving. We had a choice of sauces and went with our waitress’s suggestion – the lime and peanut sauce. This was a zesty combination of fish sauce, hoisin sauce, lime juice and seasonings that’s simmered and reduced into a sauce. At the end, the chef adds cilantro and a garnish of chopped peanuts as the final touch to this special appetizer.
We continued to nosh on a second round of food, this time the Prosciutto and Arugula Flatbread ($13.95). Served on a rustic wooden board, this was a freeform, thin-crust creation, topped with a base layer of fresh tomato slices and prosciutto and then a second layer of tender arugula dressed lightly in white truffle oil. Shavings of Italian cheese graced the surface of this combination salad and pizza.
By sharing all these interesting appetizers, we got to taste a variety of menu items and still have room for the main course. The males in our group went for pasta dishes while the females took more of a sandwich route.
With gusto, Brian polished off his bowl of Meatballs and Sausage ($12.95) served over giant rigatoni with a basic tomato sauce. The sweet Italian sausage was cut into thick chunks, which made the dish even more appealing. Mark tried his best but could not finish his Lobster Macaroni and Cheese ($18.95). We all got to taste it, and we all thought this dish was out of this world. Served in a cast iron skillet, the chef combined campanelle pasta with lobster meat, white truffle oil, a four-cheese alfredo sauce and a dusting of bread crumbs.
I ordered the Cubano Club ($8.95), a new take on the classic Cuban sandwich. Instead of the usual layers of ham and pork, a very lean pastrami is the heart of this grilled panini. The Swiss cheese melted nicely, and the Dijon mustard was a subtle improvement over the bright yellow variety customarily used to make this sandwich.
On the side, I opted for Rocco’s Fries (an additional $2 and well worth it). These hand-cut fries are tossed in garlic butter, grated parmesan cheese and chopped chives. The big surprise here is a sprinkle of togarashi, a popular seasoning in Japan that adds sweet and heat to the flavor profile of any dish. Typically, togarashi is a mixture of orange peel, cayenne, ginger, Szechuan pepper, nori and black, white and toasted sesame seeds. Chipotle ketchup accompanied the fries, but with all those flavors going on, I didn’t need it.
Heeding a recommendation from our waitress, Laurie chose the Black and Blue Burger ($9.95), a substantial patty of Hereford beef topped with Wisconsin blue cheese, applewood smoked bacon, sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions, all packed into an oversized bun. Now that’s a burger. The burgers and sliders on the menu are served with a choice of fries or a side salad. Laurie wisely selected the salad, a generous mound of mixed greens dressed in a pleasing, not overly sweet, honey balsamic vinaigrette.
Somehow we were craving a sweet ending, and we were delighted with the Flourless Chocolate Cake ($6.95), made in-house with much creativity. Instead of the usual wedge, this was a narrow strip of moist, rich and dense chocolate cake garnished with a scoop of premium vanilla ice cream. The Ricotta Cheesecake ($6.95) was also much appreciated with its distinct orange flavor and real whipped cream.
The most expensive item on the menu is The Fat Italian ($29.95). With a nod toward TV’s Man v. Food, this is an 18-inch hot Italian grinder stuffed with dry cured salami, mortadella, prosciutto, pepperoni, American and Swiss cheeses, banana peppers and pickled vegetables, served with a heaping plate of fries. If you can eat the whole thing in 30 minutes, it’s free. And you get your photo on the pub's wall of fame. Rocco’s Pub & Grub should do well serving such good fare in comfortable, casual surroundings. Come hungry.
Linda Beaulieu is the author of The Providence and Rhode Island Cookbook, available at stores throughout the state.