Italian-American soul food is the name of the game at Saint Rocco's (2 stars)
What's black and white and red all over? Saint Rocco's, Trinity Groves' newest restaurant. Meant to feel like a modern version of New York's Italian-American clubs, the interior is all black-and-white tile and bright red carpet; black-and-white family photos line the dining room walls, and giant red cans of tomatoes line shelves in the long open kitchen. Red napkins, white tablecloths, black chairs. Black counter, white plates, red sauce.
Yep, the food -- created by chef Jay Valley (Eatzi's former corporate executive chef) -- is at base old-fashioned American Italian, the kind of cooking he and co-owner Phil Romano both grew up eating as first-generation Italian- Americans, Romano in New York and Valley in Massachusetts. There's sausage and peppers. And deliciously saucy pot roast, served over ruffle-edged buttered noodles. There are linguine and clams, meaty rigatoni bolognese and Italian meatloaf fashioned from beef, pork and veal smothered in mushroom sauce and served with roasted potatoes.
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Well, much of it is that kind of cooking -- inspired by what Valley's mom cooked at home -- and most of it is pretty good.
Particularly soul-satisfying was what Valley calls Sicilian lasagna: broad noodles tossed in a bowl with ragu and pork meatballs and mozzarella melted over. That one's direct from Valley's childhood. On Saturday, Valley says, after his mom assembled a traditional layered lasagna for the next night's Sunday dinner, "she would take all the extra ingredients -- noodles, meat sauce, cheese -- and toss it in a pan for us. I always liked it better than" the layered lasagna.
And someone in the kitchen must be tasting the food.
In the course of three visits, nothing I sampled was underseasoned or overseasoned, nor was anything undercooked or overcooked. That may not sound remarkable, but it's fairly unusual.
Some of it is associated more with Italian-American restaurants than home kitchens, as in a Caesar salad or fried calamari, or carpaccio. While the modern cheffy touches don't necessarily improve the classics -- as in tossing raddichio and balsamico into the Caesar, or grilling slices of meatloaf -- they didn't usually detract too much, either. One of my favorites was veal Milanese, pounded less thinly than most, crisply fried, tender inside, drizzled with tangy lemon-caper- butter sauce and served with a simple arugula and tomato salad that set it off nicely.
A few of the offerings come from a different playbook altogether. Something tells me Valley and Romano probably grew up eating pizza, not flatbreads. And hard to imagine either mama serving watermelon salad with feta cheese and tarragon-orange vinaigrette (I took a pass on that one). Generally the dishes that broke the traditional mold the most were the ones that appealed the least.
For instance, the flatbreads, such as one blanketed with melted mozzarella and fontina, sliced mushrooms and artichoke bottoms, were the exception to the everything-cooked-just-right observation. Pallid, soft and doughy -- and not particularly enhanced by its wan-flavored diced tomato and snipped chives -- it wanted more time in the oven, more crispness, more flavor. The prosciutto, arugula and fig topping on another was better, but I'd rather have eaten that as a salad, as the crust had the same problem. Better yet -- a decent pizza.
I'm not generally a huge fried calamari fan, but Valley's, cloaked in semolina before sizzling in the fryer, was uncommonly crisp and good. Otherwise, the selection of appetizers is somewhat curious. I was surprised not to see things like baked clams, stuffed eggplant or mushrooms, minestrone or even garlic bread. In fact, while the list of main courses is long and fairly enticing, it's hard to find compelling starters. The best I tasted were those calamari and a chopped salad with iceberg lettuce, bacon, Gorgonzola and tomatoes.
Desserts stay pretty traditional, though I've never seen banana pudding in Little Italy. I had high hopes for the Italian cookie box; it's such a cute idea, and I always had a hard time walking past my neighborhood Italian bakery in Brooklyn without stopping in for a cookie or three. Saint Rocco's butter cookies weren't as soft and tender as they should be; the biscotti were acceptable but not exceptional. Spumoni is served by the scoop rather than the slice, but its flavors are right.
Generally Valley's cooking is a good deal more soulful than the dining room, which is bright and shiny and attractive (if oddly subterranean in feel), but you can also easily imagine this same dining room replicated in Little Rock, Akron, Ohio and Phoenix. Though a friend who joined me one evening knew nothing about the restaurant or who's behind it, he took a look around and said: "It looks like a Macaroni Grill." (Yes, the co-owner is that Phil Romano.) Predictably, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin hits (played on the loud side) serve as the musical backdrop. The place is fun and friendly -- with attentive professional service.
The food at Saint Rocco's, which generally pleases rather than wows, is not inexpensive. That plate of rigatoni bolognese -- a large portion but not a giant one -- goes for $23.21; veal Milanese is $39.72. (Somewhere along the way kooky figures after the decimal point became a Dallas Italian-American restaurant schtick.) On the other hand, prices on the fairly predictable, mostly Italian wine list are refreshingly fair: A 2011 Ricossa Antica Casa Barbaresco that retails for about $25 per bottle sells at Saint Rocco's for $45; a 2014 Cantina Tramin Pinot Grigio that retails for about $15 per bottle is offered at $27.
Am I going to wake up in the middle of the night craving Valley's braised pork on white beans, or linguine with shrimp, lobster, scallops and clams in a lightly spicy, cream-touched tomato-fennel sauce? No. But I'd happily eat them if I happened to be there or lived nearby. Given the dearth of decent Italian restaurants in Dallas, I'd call Saint Rocco's a keeper.
Saint Rocco's (2 stars)
Price: $$$ (soups, appetizers, flatbreads and salads $6.05 to $15.18; main courses $17.21 to $48.25; desserts $5.21 to $6.79 )
Service: Attentive and professional
Ambience: A snazzy dining room done in black, white and red, with a counter running the length of the long, open kitchen. Curiously, there's no bar.
Noise level: The acoustics seem to be decent. Music that was played too loudly was a distraction, but didn't inhibit conversation.