But the person most enjoying herself was DiSpirito's mother, a native of Campagna, Italy, who is actually Rocco's chef de cuisine. Though her first name is Nicolina, everyone calls her Mama, and it is her recipes that inspired the signature dishes on the menu: "Mama's meatballs," "Mama's frittata," "Mama's roasted potatoes," et al., along with country regional dishes such as rabbit cacciatore or "red shrimp," a plateful of authentic scampi (members of the lobster family that we refer to in this country, broadly, as prawns).
Nicolina isn't the only one to have namesake items. Uncle Guiseppe "Joe" stuffs the sausage for stewing it with peppers and sautéing it with perfectly bitter broccoli rabe. He also brews the lightly fruity house wine, in typical Italian-American, Prohibition-influenced basement style, and Rocco's aunts roll the homemade bucatini, pinch the gnocchi, twist the cavatelli, and fingerprint the orecchiette. Still, next to Rocco, or even almost exceeding him, Mama is the restaurant's personality, the one who goes around kissing cheeks and stroking hair. I haven't felt so warmly embraced -- and then immediately forgotten -- since either of my grandmas was alive. And damn if I didn't wish Rocco was the one with such familiar hands.
How the story of Rocco's will play itself out in one-hour episodes on television I have no idea. How Rocco's the restaurant will do once the hype dies down and the cameras stop rolling I also have very little clue, though I suspect once the staff has a chance to practice out of the public eye it'll be a pretty good place to grab some fried zucchini flowers filled with melted cheese and some steak alla pizzaiola. All I know is, I've got a belt that says "stallion," and I'm going to wear it, in New York or Miami, as well as I do mango pulp on the heel of a surgically severed foot.