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As restaurateurs open successive places, they often get worse and worse. This worried me as I wandered westward along 19th Street for my first visit to Bocca: Would it be as good as its ancestors?
Bocca's grandfather was Cacio e Pepe, an East Village pasta mill that taught us to adore its namesake pasta, cacio e pepe. This Roman recipe twirls tonarellilong, square noodlesin a hollowed-out cheese rind with lots of grated pecorino and cracked black peppercorns.
Bocca's sire was Spiga, an Upper West Side Italian place that sometimes frustrated its high expectations by offering food that was a tad too innovative for the neighborhood. Sometimes the neighborhood is right: Caramelized celery, strawberry and oyster soup, and "fried cream" probably don't belong in a casual neighborhood spot. But I loved Spiga's cheese plate, zucchini timbale, and pumpkin ravioli, and even dug the sneeze of cocoa powder in the wild-boar sauce. These are all things you might find in one of Rome's more forward-looking restaurants.
So with that pedigree, now comes newly born Bocca. Chef Salvatore Corea begins with the principles of its father and grandfather, then runs with them like a quarterback zigzagging through a crowded field of blockers. His wild experimentation often produces splendid results. One example is the octopus appetizer ($12.95), which pairs firm apples with supple strips of Gumby-ish cephalopod. This would prove a formidable salad on its own, except that Corea, pretending he's a sushi chef, hoses it with orange salmon roe. Amazingly, the dish is further improved, with briny eggs and sweet fruit duking it out. One flaw: It's hard to keep the roe from rolling off the slippery tentacles. On the other hand, the fluorescent eggs look great on your shirt.
Spectacular pastas abound on Bocca's menu, including "spaghetti." (Bocca limits dish names to a single noun.) According to the menu, the spaghetti comes dressed with guanciale and shaved black truffles ($15.95). The latter make the pasta smell like you've fallen face-first into a field of black loam. One evening, pancetta (unsmoked bacon) had been substituted for the guanciale (cured hog jowl). The pasta was still wonderful, so I guess I can forgive the chef for not shagging ass over to Buon Italia in the Chelsea Market and grabbing some real guanciale. The spaghetti is additionally moistened with its own salty cooking water, which amplifies the flavor as surely as a stack of Marshalls.
Bocca replicates the scrumptious and squishy cacio e pepe ($13.95) as theatrically as its forebear, sending a guy tableside to spin pasta in the giant cheese rind for you. The foreskinic pasta called mattagliati ("badly cut") is equally dope, sauced with monkfish, olives, capers, and an unexpected (but not unwelcome) hint of fresh ginger. For those who find pesto too pungent, "fusilli" ($15.95) comes agreeably dressed with an arugula pesto, which achieves the same bright greenness without the climb-up-your-nose licoricey quality. Playing with the elements of the dish, the chef makes a misstep, depositing the pasta in a basket of fried Parmesan, perhaps inspired by Taco Bell's taco salad. The pasta's flavor is fine, but when you try eating the basket, you'll find the crisp fried cheese way too salty and dense.
Among innovative secondi, the shredded beef with cherry tomatoes ($18.95) tastes a little too much like a Chinese stir fry. But "anatra" (duck, $20.95), done a little beyond medium rare so that the skin crackles, is a minor masterpiece, doused with a gravy that makes subtle use of coffee and mustard. Anyway, the pastas are so good you can skip the secondi entirely and save yourself some dough.
Bucco's décor is garish and minimalist. There's a long bar in front slinging discounted cheeses and charcuterie during happy hour. Thanks to a zillion votive candles crowded into niches, it feels like a seance. A giant silk-screened poster from Fellini'sRoma (1972) dominates the dining room. The poster depicts a broad-shouldered linebacker of a prostitute, a minor character in the film, in which we see her clambering out of the underbrush on the outskirts of Rome; soon thereafter, she exits a john's car that seems way too small for her. Not only does she recall a similar character in earlier films likeLa Strada, butbrash, huge, and unyieldingshe also serves as a metaphor for Rome itself. But why is this ugly broad from a third-rate Fellini movie hanging in Bocca? Maybe she's Bocca's mother.