I first ate at Rocco's six-and-a-half years ago and was not impressed with the meal, although the service was delightfully formal in an "olde worlde" kind of way. Since then, Rocco's has moved a short distance away, into a budget chain motel. Always on the lookout for great Italian food, I revisit Rocco's in hopes of a better outcome this time.
As I come through the door, I'm pleasantly surprised: The interior is lovely. The European look is achieved with delicate line-drawings on the cream plaster, ornate sconces and rich, heavy curtains drawn back to reveal a somewhat private dining area. The other part of the room has several tables, a wall of intimate booths and there is only one couple dining. Unfortunately, we're seated next to the swinging kitchen door, across from a table set for eight. It is, without a doubt, the worst table in the house (especially after the boisterous group of eight arrives. They're loud and we should have been seated further away.)
I start to worry when I order a virgin Caesar and am brought what is quite possibly the poorest executed drink I've ever had the misfortune of being served. The wedge of lime garnish is rotten on one end, dark brown and shrivelled. The drink is bland—just clamato juice over ice with no trace of Tabasco, Worcestershire or celery salt and, horror of horrors, it's rimmed in sugar. Oh, well. The performance of the bar might not necessarily reflect that of the kitchen.
Over several visits, we find the service uneven, but never especially bad. The food, sadly, is consistently flawed. Lumache alla Rocco's ($8.95) is snails sauteed with garlic cream and herbs, with a slab of puff pastry and julienned leek, green pepper and carrot. It tastes of burned garlic. Insalata di Mare ($7.95) is a cold seafood salad of greens laden with squid, scallops and shrimp. It's not bad, but the lemon and olive oil dressing has separated. The top of the salad is doused in pure citrus while the bottom is awash in oil, effectively ruining it. One of the many old-fashioned menu choices is the shrimp cocktail ($7.95). It's pretty standard, the shrimp clinging to a glass of the cocktail sauce. The shrimp are rubbery and overcooked and the sauce tastes as if it came directly from the bottle. One bright spot: The Caesar salad, prepared tableside, is certainly acceptable.
Main courses in a Southern Italian restaurant are heavy on pastas. We try Ravioli Portofino ($14.95), a small bowl of spinach-filled pasta in tomato cream and devoid of the promised pesto. Spaghetti con Cozze ($16.50) is tossed with mussels, baby clams, garlic, lemon, sundried tomatoes, olive oil and chillies—at least, that's what the menu says. This plate has mussels, clams, more burned garlic and is flooded with olive oil. Involtini di Pollo al Gamberi ($17.95) is an overcooked, unseasoned chicken breast stuffed with tough shrimp and served with a Pommes William (pear-shaped mashed potato, breaded and fried). We leave most of it. Salmon ($17.95) is victim to heavy-handed cooking and the rice pilaf tastes as if it was made two days before.
A brief hope at finishing our meal well dies: The classic Italian tiramisu ($6.50) is a soggy mess, the creme brulee ($6.50) has one spot of caramelization where the butane torch came too close and the butane taste on the spot is all the flavour it has. With a dated, overpriced menu, lacklustre wine list and spotty service, Rocco's disappoints.
Rocco’s319 Prince Albert Road, Dartmouth, 461-0211Mon-Fri: 7am-10am, 11:30am-2:30pm. Sat-Sun: 8am-11am, closed lunch. Dinner: Mon-Sat 5pm-10pm, Sun 5pm-9pm
Chin up. There's more Liz Feltham online at foodcritic.ca.