Rocco’s emerged in the thick of Melbourne’s 2020 lockdowns when everything else was shuttering – first as a pop-up sandwich bar out of the space now occupied by sister restaurant Poodle and then flitting from venue to venue around Melbourne over the course of the next two years. Its cult following is such the Rocco’s crew decided to set up permanent digs on the quieter end of Gertrude Street.
Cosy is the first word that comes to mind when you step into Rocco’s two-storey, 60s-inspired interiors – brown woods are accentuated by mustard orange accents and diners can choose to perch by the bustling open kitchen, crowd around self-contained booths or sit in a fairy-light decked courtyard tucked away to the side.
The drinks menu has housemade limoncello, amaro and grappa infused with native ingredients like finger lime, green almond and wild fennel. I’m upsold Silvio Carta Bomba Carta – a liqueur with a rare, herbaceous honey nectar – in place of vermouth in my negroni, but apart from a deep floral aroma that accompanies each sip, I’m unsure it’s worth the extra $8. We move on from cocktails to wine, which you can conveniently order either in a one-litre carafe or a 500ml one.
Rocco’s excels in specials of the day – the crudo, salumi and fish differ from day to day, so there’s a certain level of anticipation when our jovial waitstaff pops by to reel off what they are. When we visit the house salumi plate is coppa di testa, the Italian equivalent of head cheese where the head and neck of a pig is cooked over low heat alongside cinnamon, cloves, rosemary, a citrus zest, celery and onion. Rocco’s coppa di testa is deliciously fatty and melt-in-your-mouth creamy with notes of chilli and fennel, best enjoyed atop a slice of the pleasantly charred and glistening housemade flatbread, and if you’re feeling particularly indulgent, the pesto Modenese – a whipped pork fat spread.
Despite their deep-fried nature, the briny baccala (salted cod) fritter and thinly breaded rings of calamari fritti are almost a reprieve after the richness of our cured meat entrée. Half a dozen clam morsels, baked over with a fermented Calabrian hot chilli paste and cheese, are tiny injections of umami, while a daily special that isn’t on the menu – guanciale threaded on to a whole garfish on a skewer – is a perfect blend of salty, sweet and savoury.
Celtuce, a cross between celery and lettuce but more akin to bitter melon in texture, is a fresh counterpart to the parmesan custard garnished with lemon zest that it sits on, while the tart of wild weeds is so much more tantalising than its plain moniker gives it credit for. Shortcrust pastry circles a cheesy blend of kale and cime di rapa (turnip tops), with the fried
egg on top only enhancing its moreish quality.
As you’d expect, Rocco’s hits it out of the park with its pastas. A daily special of pumpkin mac and cheese, where the pumpkin is baked into the pasta dough itself to give it a faint orange colour, is an herbaceous melange with diced rosemary, parsley and chives camouflaged in the melted taleggio clinging to the al dente tubes of macaroni. Rocco’s famous pork and veal meatballs, most commonly encountered in their signature lunchtime sub, make an appearance in the mainstay spaghetti on the menu, covered in a smooth and velvety sugo.
Butter is whipped with bone marrow until silky and slathered onto thick slabs of crusty bread for a twist on your classic garlic bread – the result is rich and creamy but not overpoweringly so.
Be sure to leave space for dessert. Feather-light and fluffy deep-fried dough balls, known as zeppole, are blanketed in a bittersweet amaro butterscotch while the refreshing counterpart of white balsamic and raspberry gelato with freeze-dried raspberries to boot is simultaneously sweet and savoury.
Rocco’s combines the warmth of an Italian mom-and-pop restaurant with a menu that is elevated comfort food – every dish is meticulously curated. Rocco’s crew billed them the ‘Italian Maccas’ and the best part about that is you’ll be too full and satisfied after to consider any fast-food chaser.