Fred A. Bernstein

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Mama's Meatballs

Published in The New York Blade, October 10, 2003

I DIDN'T GO TO ROCCO'S LOOKING for a fight. In fact, I was heading toward another 22nd Street restaurant - Tamarind - when Rocco's stopped me in my tracks: its wooden porch looked so inviting on a warm fall night that I decided to see if I could snag a table. There are 15 two-tops on the porch, and five or six of them were empty.

So I went inside, where the maitre d told me I would have to "wait a while" if I wanted to eat outside. "Why," I asked, "since so many of the tables are free?" The waiter assigned to the porch, she explained, was swamped, and "can't handle any more customers right now."

Couldn't I just sit down and wait for him to catch up? "No," she said, "You'll get really bad service." I looked perplexed, and she added, "That waiter sucks."

That waiter sucks? I asked if I had heard correctly. And she said, "Yes, we're still suffering from NBC casting."

As much of the world knows by now, Rocco's was created for an NBC reality series, "The Restaurant," by star chef Rocco Di Spirito. Why Rocco did this isn't clear; after all, his Union Pacific, across the street, is one of the most honored restaurants in the city, a posh establishment where each dish is a minor masterpiece. So why open a barn-sized shrine to Italian home cooking? And do it on TV, where customers were heard to complain about the food week after week?

Curious (and hungry) I took what I was offered - an inside table with a view of the porch - and I ordered a glass of Merlot. I got half of a very small glass, about four sips, I'd say.

And then I watched the waiters wander around the restaurant, doing more preening than serving. Quizzing my own waiter, I quickly figured out that if the service sucks, it isn't NBC's fault. At Rocco's, one person (the waiter) takes the order; another (a runner) brings the food; and a third (a busboy) handles "everything else."

In other words, no one's in charge. (When I was in college working as a waiter, I was responsible for everything that happened at my table.)

The long lulls in service gave me plenty of time to contemplate the decor, which is a riot of patterns (some on tile, some on wallpaper, some on an odd, beaded mural that dominates the back of the large room). I also had time to read the Gazette, an ersatz newspaper printed on the back of Rocco's menu.

Tonight it included a tribute to actor Vincent Donofrio and gripes about Mayor Bloomberg. When I was done reading, I got to watch Rocco's Mama, who supposedly runs the kitchen, pose for pictures.

SO WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD? The first of my two appetizers, the eggplant rollatini, was almost spectacular - thin, crisp slices of eggplant rolled around a delectable cheese filling, all of it drenched in garlicky marinara sauce.

I also ordered the crudo: raw tuna in olive oil, with bits of radish for garnish. This is essentially sushi, but without the wasabi or soy sauce that (I think) raw fish usually needs; the tuna tasted oily and bland, even after I'd sprinkled it with salt.

What of my entree, the meatballs and spaghetti, based on Mama's recipe? The waiter - er, runner - brought out a medium sized portion of thick spaghetti with two meatballs, garnished with too much parsley. Does anyone - except perhaps a food stylist for a TV show - want all that green stuff on his meatballs?

This time, the marinara sauce was thick - too thick - and the meatballs were a bit porky for me. (The ones I grew up on were all-beef.)

The food didn't suck. But it didn't rock, either.

And since I'll never own a restaurant, here's my mother's recipe for meatballs and spaghetti:

Drop two slices white bread into 1/2 cup warm water. When soft, add 1 egg. Whisk the mixture. Then add 1 1/2 lbs. ground sirloin, salt, minced garlic, pepper. Form the meat into balls. In a large pot, brown two cloves garlic in one tsp. olive oil. Smoosh the toasted clove around the bottom of the pan, to perfume the oil. Remove the garlic (or not). Let oil cool. Add 1 can (28 oz.) plum tomatoes, 6 oz. tomato paste, salt, pepper, oregano. Use two sharp knives to cut tomatoes into pieces. Stir.

Cook over medium heat. When the sauce begins to boil, add meatballs. Cover. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours or longer. Skim fat off top with a spoon. Serve with thin spaghetti, garlic bread and grated cheese.

Come to my house: I'll take the order, bring the food and clear the table.