Tampa Heights' Italian restaurant Rocca lives up to the hype

Don't miss out on the mozzarella cart.

click to enlarge Tampa Heights' Italian restaurant Rocca lives up to the hype


4.5 out of 5 stars

323 West Palm Ave., Tampa. Appetizers: $5-$16; entrees: $21-$65; desserts: $9; beer/wine/cocktails: $5-$43.

 813-906-5445; roccatampa.com

What propels something to greatness? Passion bordering on obsession, keen attention to detail, the element of surprise? Whether shaken or stirred, these qualities make for an impressive cocktail of habits.

As I meet up with my posse at Rocca, I already know that my new colleague at the Tampa Bay Times has bestowed her highest rating. I’m cautious, lest my expectations grow and distort my own perceptions. Every critic has a unique viewpoint, which may converge on occasion and, perhaps, diverge at times in a way where you wonder what you may have missed. It’s true across all disciplines—whether, music, art, film or food. I don’t possess the epic fantasy gene, for example. I wanted to walk out of the highly acclaimed Lord of the Rings film. And, heaven knows, one was more than enough for me, so I never saw the rest of the trilogy. Clearly, a minority view.

So I’m tense when I’m shown to my table. A welcoming plate of aged Grana Padano nuggets worthy of the gold rush are an umami-filled treat. I begin to relax. We start with a couple of terrific cocktails served in delicate etched stemware reminiscent of something your maiden aunt might produce for a glass of sherry. They set the stage for an evening that largely celebrates tradition; indeed, the china is from the same mold. Certainly that’s true of the splendid bread that’s very much worthy of the $5 charge. Superior toasted sourdough and dimpled focaccia with an open airy crumb sandwiched between golden chewy crust doesn’t really even need the ever-so-light whipped lemon butter with sea salt.

Moving into the “food-as-theatre” realm is the riveting mozzarella cart. A well-trained artisan wheels a butcher block to the table topped with bright red heirloom tomatoes (grown in Odessa by the chef’s mother) next to a bouquet of fragrant basil fresh from Chef Bryce Bosack’s personal garden.

The “maître d’frommage” pulls on a pair of long black rubber gloves looking like an ad from BDSM Vogue. He then pours a stream of 187-degree water, which Chef B deems the perfect temperature for melding domestic curds into the perfect table-side cheese.

At first it looks like Play Doh, back into the water to knead and squish; it’s now like Silly Putty or, more recently, Slime. Next, it’s pulled, prodded, and pulled again until it’s two feet long and stretchy like Nickelodeon’s Gak, the apotheosis of childhood goo. Finally, a smooth ball is cut into chunks and plated along with the tomatoes.

click to enlarge Tampa Heights' Italian restaurant Rocca lives up to the hype

Add a few grinds of fresh black pepper, a sprinkling of coarse Malden sea salt and luxuriously bold 25-year-old balsamic vinegar. Balance that with Spanish Venta Del Baron, an indulgent first cold-pressed olive oil, and you’ve got caprese heaven.

The heart of Bonsack’s menu is a fixation on pasta, based on extensive travels around Italy to learn authentic, uncompromising techniques. The results are magnificent. From rigatoni all’Amartriciana built around guanciale (cured pork cheeks) simply with tomato sugo (sauce), black pepper, and pecorino romano or tubular bucatini with stunning, chunky lamb ragu subtlety laced with horseradish and mint. The most seductive is the giant tortello al uovo filled with creamy ricotta around a flowing center of brilliant sunset-colored egg yolks that I’ve only previously seen in Europe. It’s all covered with dark roasted and paper-thin shaved mushrooms and just divine.

There are a few large meat and fish dishes meant to share. We choose the pork collar from Sakura Farms, juicy and shimmering slices sitting on a scrumptious white bean stew with a grilled fennel bulb plus a tangle of braised fennel ribbons. Add a dollop of bagna verde—a parsley-based condiment combining anchovies and garlic—and the flavor combo has the whole table oohing and aahing.

Bonsack’s sweets also score with surprising soft basil custard and diced rum apples topped with streusel and an amazingly intense black cherry sorbetto dotted with whole Luxardo cherries and a touch of Malden salt.

World class restaurants throw off the chains of tradition and embrace modernist techniques to deliver bites never before seen, e.g. Chicago’s Alinea where dessert may include an edible green apple helium balloon where you even eat the string. Tampa Bay, as a whole, is more casual than the world’s culinary capitals and lacks the critical mass of well-heeled diners willing to part with the bucks necessary to support that level of invention on a daily basis. There are mind-blowing special events here, but limited interest and funds for chefs who wish to push boundaries every day.

click to enlarge Tampa Heights' Italian restaurant Rocca lives up to the hype

That’s why SideBern’s dropped their inventive tasting menus and morphed into Haven. We’ve moved into a market championing cocktails and share plates. That means many striking flavors wrapped in a less formal bow. However, that also means that our finest restaurants are forced to a brush with greatness, rather than ascending to Michelin perfection. I profiled my two top local restaurants (The Restorative and Rooster & the Till) as “unsung heroes” in my new book, decrying the fact that Michelin isn’t looking for top cuisine in Tampa or Atlanta or Austin, but that wonderful meals are under our nose.

Rocca is the perfect example. Passion, attention to detail, and surprise suffuse the entire experience. Chef Bonsack’s Michelin roots at NYC’s Corton and Blanca show in the service, wine, decor, and, of course, the ethereal pastas. Take a group of friends and don’t miss the mozzarella cart—it’s now an essential pilgrimage for Tampa Bay foodies. 

click to enlarge Tampa Heights' Italian restaurant Rocca lives up to the hype

CL Food Critic Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Tampa Bay’s 50 best restaurants of 2019, according to the area’s longest running food critic Jon Palmer Claridge. Check out the explanation of his rating system. His recent published book, 'Drink.More.Wine!', can be found here.

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About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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