When you find yourself in Brooklyn at the corner of Fort Hamilton Avenue and 65th Street, you’re not in the Land of Lobster but in the Kingdom of Clams. As we sat at one of the outdoor tables on a warm May evening, dining on the late side at a restaurant where most of the forking occurs before eight, the street was empty except for knots of high school kids strolling by, the boys in flattops or fades, the girls dangling ponytails. Across the intersection, Three Guys From Brooklyn —a brightly lit vegetable stand that calls itself “The Original Poor People’s Friend”—was entertaining a final trickle of shoppers.
Marooned between Dyker Heights and Sunset Park, Rocco’s Calamari is one of the least known Italian old-timers in Brooklyn. The name suggests the primacy of seafood to Calabrian cuisine, and the fried squid ($8.50) is indeed spectacular. Heaped on a long plate, lightly breaded and quickly cooked, the rings and tentacles are more soft than crunchy. Of the two marinara dipping sauces, pick the spicy version. In a tribute to its southern Italian originators, fried calamari has become a bar food obsession all across the nation.
Despite stinting on lobster, which shows up at slightly fancier Sicilian spots like Lenny’s Clam Bar and Randazzo’s,
Rocco’s features a welter of other seagoing creatures. Foremost is that ancient Brooklyn fave, clams. Have them fried or, even better, raw on the half-shell with a squeeze of lemon, littlenecks so delicate and fresh you’ll want to eat a dozen ($9). Squishy and chewy octopus salad excels too, anointed with a vinaigrette heavy with parsley and olive oil. But skip the dull seafood salad, which has none of the sparkle of the octopus salad.
In the style of a Sicilian focacceria, a plethora of beautiful dishes—breaded cutlets, well-sauced pastas, and especially, amazing vegetables—are displayed on a long steam table, with room-temp selections above on a glass counter. Always check this area before placing your order with one of the gruff but lovable waitresses. It was after such a careful inspection that we ordered the roasted red peppers with capers ($4.50). Draped across the sesame seed bread, they made an inexpensive and unimpeachable appetizer.
Pastas too predominate, though, in the Italian American style, the veggies are likely to be more al dente than the pastas. Making me wonder, did Mom often fall asleep at the stove after a long day of work in the factory? Spaghetti with meatballs ($7) is reverently rendered at Rocco’s, but bland nonetheless, with the girth and sponginess of the meatballs more remarkable than their taste. Much better is the lasagna, a dish that can survive and even improve during long cooking and reheating. The casserole as displayed on the steam table is appealing enough, but when you order it, the flattened cube is tossed into the oven with an extra slice of mozzarella on top, and the red-sauce spigots open wide to permit a lavish saucing of the formidable mass—unforgettable!
Red wine is the drink of choice, and you can enjoy jug wine just like the
paisanos. But the proprietor often has a modest bottle of Tuscan Chianti or California zinfandel for wine enthusiasts. Hey, we’re not talking Rocco DiSpirito here. He only wishes he could cook as well as Rocco’s Calamari.