In Plain Sight

Rocco’s Italian Grille is a true reflection of its chef, who runs his restaurant with a focus on family, friends and good food.

Rocco Potami is a big man with a big grin, a throwback to another time, when the chef’s name above the door meant there was a real person inside.

I don’t mean like the celebrity chefs you see on television—most of whom haven’t spent much time in an actual kitchen in years—but chefs who instill their own character in a restaurant. Brandon McGlamery at Luma on Park is one;  Kevin Tarter at Chef’s Table is another; also Cory York at deep blu, Kathleen Blake at Rusty Spoon and Kevin Fonzo at K. We’re blessed with these and a few others, chefs synonymous with their kitchens, attracting diners who feel a sense of community, who look for “their” chef to come through the kitchen door and will follow him or her to any location.

From his early days as a teenage dishwasher in Capistrano, Italy, Potami, 57, came to America—well, North America—in 1976, attending culinary school in Montreal. The opening of Epcot in 1982 allowed him to work with Chris Christini at L’Originale Alfredo di Roma Ristorante in the Italy Pavilion. Christini is another of those larger-than-life characters, and it’s no surprise that after a brief respite in California, Potami returned to Orlando to work at Christini’s namesake restaurant. He moved on to other places, including La Via in Winter Park, before settling into Rocco’s Italian Grille seven years ago.

Fantastic flavors: Scallopine saltimbocca with veal, prosciutto ham and sage. Photo: Roberto Gonzalez

Building on the bones of the original Trastevere, in a cozy 1940s building that has been several other restaurants in its time, Potami expanded and renovated the space, and it is now a cross between Italian trattoria and cocktail lounge, with an outdoor area isolated from road noise and comfortable when Florida is comfortable outdoors. A family-centric place, old friends and longstanding staff tend bar and greet diners, and Rocco’s son can be found waiting tables, and doing it very well.

Familiarize yourself with the abundant customs of Italian dining before you venture into Rocco’s—and arrive hungry. The concept of primo e secondo piatti—pasta followed by a meat or fish course—along with antipasti to start, a vegetable side dish (contorno), and dessert means you could be sitting in Rocco’s for a long time if you want to experience the Italian tradition of multiple courses.

The antipasti caldi (hot) of funghi ripieni alla Jojo ($9.25) stuffs roasted mushroom caps with a savory mix of meaty sausage, sweet peppers and shallots, and lusciously smooth melted Mascarpone cheese. I didn’t find out who Jojo is, but I’d like to thank him (or her).

The shellfish-rich Papardelle alle Cinque Terre. Photo: Roberto Gonzalez

I like pappardelle, long wide ribbons of pasta, when cooked with just a hint of resistance to the tooth, and Rocco’s version alla Toscana ($16.95) is just so. To the northern Tuscan standard of artichoke hearts, mixed mushrooms and peppery arugula, Potami adds a southern Italian touch, strips of tangy sun-dried tomatoes, that lifts the whole taste profile. Seafood lovers will adore the richness of papardelle alle Cinque Terre ($23.95), with shrimp, scallops and lobster embraced in a combination of white wine, tomato broth and fragrant basil cream sauce.

Simple dishes done well, such as scaloppine saltimbocca ($23.95), a thin slice of veal topped with salty prosciutto ham and earthy sage, and petto di pollo alla Caprese ($17.95), with its contrast of acid from fresh tomato and the taste of smoked mozzarella layered on tender chicken breast, are standouts.

Potami is known to roam the restaurant when he’s not firing an entrée or calling out an order to his staff, and it seems like he knows each one of his guests, and they know him. Rocco is more than a name above the door, and his food proves it. 

Daily Very Specials

A few menu items at Rocco’s vary with the day. Bruschetta sorpresa (“surprise”) offers items like artichoke hearts or roasted peppers atop grilled bread; ravioli dello chef varies the pasta-wrapped form and ingredients, like tortellacci, a large firm pillow of pasta stuffed with seasoned ground beef and veal in a slightly spicy tomato broth. 

Rocco’s Italian Grille
400 S. Orlando Ave., Winter Park
Entrees: $14.95-$36

Making Tracks to Jax

The restaurant biz is booming, and amid local expansion plans, four Orlando hotspots are mounting a culinary colonization by following the northward-flowing current of the St. Johns River to the simmering foodie heaven of Jacksonville and beyond.

Photo: Hollis Wilder

Pitting itself against established joints like Bono’s and Jenkins, 4 Rivers Smokehouse opened its fourth location in June, this one in John Rivers’ Jacksonville hometown in the Southside shopping area called Baymeadows. It will be followed by another smokehouse in Gainesville and a new UCF-area shop in the fall.

Hawkers Asian Street Fare will open a second location in Jacksonville’s Five Points, an up-and-coming cultural and arts area centered around the Riverside Theater, in October, while augmenting its eclectic street food menu here at home – on Mills Avenue – with new items.

And with three existing Orlando-area locations, Greg Peters and local legend Tom Hughes, the burgermeisters of Graffiti Junktion, are looking into a proposed site in Jacksonville Beach, a new eatery in Lake Nona, and franchise-owned spots in the Dr. Phillips and Hunter’s Creek areas.

Winter Park’s own Tijuana Flats already has eight locations in Jax, and dessert enchantress and three-time Cupcake Wars winner Hollis Wilder (right) opened her second Sweet! By Holly shoppe in 2011, in a location just 5 miles south of the new Jacksonville 4 Rivers.

Categories: Dining