When I first stepped into Rocco's, I thought it was another nice little neighborhood Italian restaurant. And it is. I've had many a happy meal over the red-and-white-checked table tops, grabbed my share of take-out pizzas, and introduced my children to the fine art of eating out, all at Rocco's. It's practically an institution, nestled into the little mall on the northeast corner of Maizeland and Academy.
Though it's been around since 1983, I discovered Rocco's around 1995, which was when Robert and Judy Tust took over. They must be doing something right, because they just opened a second location at South Academy and Hancock. This means the people on the south end of town are in for a real treat! (Note: The new location is smoke-free.)
What sets Rocco's apart? There's a warm, cozy atmosphere, with an extremely friendly waitstaff. They have a coloring contest on the children's menu, and kids who color the picture and fill out the form receive their winning notification in the mail, along with a coupon for a free child's meal. It's a great place to take kids, or have a quiet meal for two, or go for a family event. The waitstaff bustles between full tables, and you see families, business partners talking shop, friends having a night out, and couples ranging from high-school first daters to empty nesters. It's the kind of place where you can sit as a sappy newlywed and know that someday you'll bring your children and grandchildren here.
If I can stop channeling Donna Reed for a moment, let me tell you about the food. My favorite, favorite thing is the specialty of the house, Pasti Cannoli. It's $6.50 at lunch, or $9.25 at dinner with soup or a salad. Be hungry. Be very hungry. This is a monster. Pizza dough is flattened, spread with a rich, tangy tomato sauce, then topped with cheese, Ortega peppers and your choice of Italian sausage or meatballs. It's baked to golden perfection and served with more of the red sauce for dipping. It's more than a pizza or a calzone, but simple and delicious.
Of course, you can get both pizzas and calzones. The calzones come stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella cheeses and your choice of toppings ($6.95 lunch/$8.95 dinner). I recommend the Prairie Fire, stuffed to the bursting point with pepperoni, Italian sausage and sliced jalapeos (be prepared to breathe fire). They also come stuffed with spinach and mushrooms, a variety of vegetables and other combinations.
The pizzas are an experience unto themselves. The house special pizza pie is a double-crust pizza stuffed with that marinara sauce, ricotta, mozzarella, provolone, Romano and your choice of two toppings. The small, I was told, was a good size for one person, but that one person would have to be both large and voraciously hungry. The pies run from $9.95 for small to $17.95 for large. The regular pizzas, also delish, are named after the local high schools. The Wasson is pepperoni, green peppers and onions, for example; the St. Mary's offers creamy Alfredo sauce with artichoke hearts; and the Falcon Special combines ham and pineapple. Of course, you can create your own favorite combination as well.
The rest of the menu is a little bit of everything you could want from an Italian restaurant. Any given night you'll hear the waitress saying "homemades and sausage" or "homemades and meatballs" as she sets steaming, marinara-topped platters on the tables around you. That's how they refer to their homemade spaghetti, and it's definitely worth a trip. Your basic pasta dinner is $9.95 with soup or salad, and for an extra 75 you can get it topped with cheese and baked.
The specialties range in price from $11.95 to $16.95, and I've yet to order a plate that I can finish. There's the good, basic, full-flavored steak with a side of linguine, or jumbo cheese-stuffed ravioli with red sauce. The Artichoke Primavera is excellent, al dente fettuccine topped with sauted artichoke hearts, tomatoes, olives and fresh vegetables. If you've got a marathon to run, you could get the Tour of Rocco's, but I don't know if you'll be able to walk after five-cheese lasagna, manicotti, stuffed shells plus a meatball and sausage. Another favorite in our house is the Zuppa di Clams. Although you can get it with a creamy Alfredo sauce or a zesty, wine-enriched marinara, our favorite is the butter-garlic, which really highlights the chewy chunks of clam. The Bay Scallop Saut delivers tender scallops sauted with olives, roasted garlic, capers, lemon, tomatoes, basil and white wine. It's sophisticated, but simple enough that your 3-year-old can sneak bites off your plate. The Salmon Scampi is a recent favorite with tender, juicy medallions of salmon in a traditional scampi treatment, served over fettucine.
I could go on and on, but you just need to try it for yourself. There's a nice selection of beer and wine, plus a full bar tucked into the back of the restaurant. Desserts range from spumoni ice cream to cheesecake to a chocolate toffee mousse cake, but I've never had room to sample them. My next goal is to sample from the lunch menu, with the Italian Chef's and Nicoise salads, and the hot and cold Italian subs, including the veal cutlet and the Mega BLT.