Updated: January 21, 2010 at 12:00 am
One of the few good things about the economic infarction of the past year or so is that few new restaurants bothered to open. Before the Dow dove like a seal, a Colorado Springs reviewer could count on at least three new places to eat a month. Now, we are lucky to have one.
Why is that a good thing? Because it gives me a chance to revisit the overlooked, the underappreciated, and the local hideaways that are happy to operate below the radar.
In other words, it’s a good thing because it gives me a chance to write about a wonderful place like Rocco’s Italian Restaurant.
Never heard of it? Neither had I, even though Rocco’s claims a devoted following and has been in the same spot, in the same shopping center as Steaksmith, for more than 25 years.
Rocco’s is one of those old-school Italian-American eateries you find in almost every town: red-checkered tablecloths, comfy booths and friendly servers, lots of fresh red sauce and Chianti bottles on the walls that bear little relation to the cheap stuff sold by the carafe on the menu. And it distinguishes itself as being one of the good ones.
The sauce is made fresh every day by owner and chef Robert Tust, who bought the place from the original Rocco in 1995.
Along with a litany of ravioli, lasagna and eggplant Parmesan, he dips his toe into the sea, often spicing up the standard menu with chalkboard specials of fish and other seafood.
An appetizer of clams steamed in a garlic-y broth, their spotted shells flecked with fresh Italian parsley, were fresh, delicious, and totally unexpected at an out-of-the-way place on Academy Boulevard. So was the Red Snapper stuffed with crab special off the chalkboard ($16).
Regulars tell me the real draw of Rocco’s is the specials. Tust likes to experiment, so you never know what delights are in store.
Ordering fish in Colorado Springs is a roll of the dice. The snapper wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t a big winner, either. I found the thin fillet wrapped around a tasty mélange of crab, cream cheese, green onions and seasonings to be a little dry and overdone. Not bad, but not as good as other classics on the table.
First-time visitors should opt for the Tour of Rocco’s, ($16, all prices for dinner) a medley of lasagna, manicotti and ravioli sloshed in a delicious, not-too-sweet, homemade sauce, and topped with a meatball and spicy sausage. The meatballs here are really terrific: moist, soft and seasoned with some spice — I’m thinking mace — that gives them a savory spark. The sausages are just as good. Stick to classic pasta dishes and the popular pizzas ($8.25-$20) and you’ll likely become a regular.
Other things are a bit uneven. The Italian dressing on a house salad was almost entirely oil. That’s a good sign; it means they are making the dressing from scratch. But it’s also a bad sign; they are making it from scratch the wrong way.
The gnocchi ($13), which are not homemade, were also a disappointment — the little lumps of potato and flour can be light and soft as pillows, but on a recent visit they were dense and doughy — the result, most likely, of too much mixing and too much flour.
Rocco’s rallies at dessert. An Italian cream cake with three rich, blond layers punctuated by nuts and sweet cream was fantastic and obviously handmade, which is a real rarity at little Italian joints.
Where does Rocco’s fit in the forum of local Italian eateries?
I like to think of it as the Luigi’s or Roman Villa of the east side of town. It’s good but very traditional. It is small and family-owned. It makes you feel warm and happy, and you will leave with leftovers.
ROCCO’S ITALIAN RESTAURANT
4 stars out of 5
(A neighborhood favorite)
Address: 3878 Maizeland Road
Contact: 574-1426, roccoscolorado.com
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; noon– 2 p.m. Saturdays. Dinner 4 p.m. to close Tuesdays through Sundays. Closed Mondays.
Liquor: Beer and wine
Credit cards: Yes