A star is born . . . at Rocca
This top chef’s talents are best savored in person
‘Top Chef’’ may be the worst thing that could have happened to Tiffani Faison. On the first season of the cooking competition, she took second place and was portrayed as the villainess. It was a distraction. When she took over as chef at the South End Italian restaurant Rocca in March — the first time her name appeared in the marquee spot on a menu — it was the reality TV connection that got people talking.
Enough. From here on out, Faison will not be known as “Tiffani from ‘Top Chef.’ ’’ She should just be known as the killer cook she is. After stints at the likes of Straight Wharf in Nantucket and o ya, she has created at Rocca one of those incredibly beguiling menus that make you want to eat everything on it.
Her flavors are bold, unusual, and strikingly combined. There’s nothing crazy — this is just real food, influenced by modern Italy — but there’s also nothing you’re going to see on other menus around town.
Faison uses fresh herbs liberally, which steers many of her dishes in the direction of light and refreshing. A main course of lobster panzanella features pieces of claw and tail meat and grilled hunks of bread over tomato sauce, topped with bountiful sprigs of oval and Genovese basil, parsley, and chive blossoms. Crispy fried artichokes are dosed with garlic, lemon, and mint. Tiny eggplants marinate in a sweet-hot-sour vinaigrette made with reduced balsamic, red onions, and chilies; mint and basil offer contrast. A dish called “summer melons’’ is a plate of juicy cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon; the creamy fresh mozzarella called burrata; and mint, basil, and fragrant lemon balm. It’s so simple and lovely.
Fruit appears in quite a few savory dishes. A cooling crudo of Cape scallops is served with grapefruit and horseradish. Asparagus comes with farro, green grapes, and arugula, in a shallot-honey dressing. Pork is smoked and braised in rich stock, vinegar, and sugar, accompanied by grilled black plums and peaches. The night we try it, the fruit is hard and the flavor of the pork is overwhelmed by the mustard and ginger in the sauce. (Meat dishes aren’t always the equal of pasta, vegetables, and seafood at Rocca. Spiced lamb loin arrives on the raw side of rare, after our server fails to ask what temperature we’d like it. But Faison does work magic with a tough piece of steak — cooked slowly for three hours, the top butt cut becomes marvelously tender and flavorful.)
But perhaps the most unusual use of fruit is in a dish of whole wheat tagliarini. The long, thin pasta is tossed with Parmesan, Meyer lemon, blueberries, and mint. The tart fruit, earthiness of whole wheat, and umami-laden cheese combine to make something surprising and delightful.
I don’t meet a pasta dish I don’t like at Rocca. Tiny gnocchi nestle together with charred lobster and guanciale in a briny, heady sea urchin broth. Envelopes of fresh pasta close around stinky, sticky taleggio cheese, the fragrance trailing out from the seams and toward your nose; tiny carrots, peas, and a delicate carrot mousse offset the richness. Squid ink strozzapreti are a bit too firm, but it almost doesn’t matter. They’re tossed with sweet little shrimp and a smoky pesto made from grilled and raw escarole. The flavors are intense, and intensely good.
Perhaps a legacy of her time at seafood-oriented Straight Wharf, Faison has a way with fish. Striped bass is in season now, and she serves it simply — the skin crisped, the flesh juicy, with sweet roasted corn and ribbons of zucchini in a pool of bacon-scented jus. It offers just enough pork flavor without overwhelming the bass.
Perfectly roasted scallops, stored live and shucked to order, come with creamy polenta. The seafood is lovely, but the accompanying patty-pan squash and purslane are incidental. More interesting is a monkfish and shrimp sausage, a dish with a sense of humor. Light in texture and slightly sweet, the link looks a lot like a frank. So Faison serves it with a schmear of mustard-tinted mascarpone, along with giardiniera — the Italian version of relish. It’s a not dog.
For dessert, an ice cream sandwich wrapped in brown paper picks up on the spirit of fun. Made with orange cookies, chocolate gelato, pistachios, and cocoa nibs, it is just sweet enough, which is to say not very. It plays up the flavor of the nibs. But the best dessert is the simplest: affogato, a scoop of good gelato served in a big cup of strong, chilled espresso, then drizzled with olive oil. On the side, there’s a long breadstick with its tip dipped in a Nutella-like chocolate spread and fleur de sel.
As a restaurant space, Rocca has never been my favorite. The upstairs dining room is uncomfortable and cold. The downstairs bar area is much better, with its curving bar and welcoming couches (the unpleasant, loud music persists, however). Bartending can be uneven — a Ligurian Lemonade (vodka, limoncello, Campari, and more) one night is watery and the Burnt Mail (rum, honey, lime, prosecco, and Angostura bitters) off-kilter. Another night, red sangria is strong and well balanced, and an Americano (vermouth, Campari, and soda) pleasingly syrupy. The wine list is entirely Italian, reasonably priced, and broken into user-friendly categories of light, medium, and bold. (And for dessert, there’s Brachetto by the glass, for $6 a pop — I dare anyone to drink this sweet, pink fizz and not feel happy.)
Faison prevails here, too, with a bar menu that’s as appealing as the one in the dining room. It features snacks such as a pizzetta topped with grilled lamb, goat cheese, and fingerling chips fried in duck fat, or an open-faced sandwich of lobster salad with lobster butter and tomatoes on Rocca’s stellar house-made bread.
Rocca opened three years ago, and it was ready for revitalization. Faison provides this with bright flavors and dishes that satisfy and surprise. With the focus now squarely on the food, it doesn’t matter quite as much how the dining room feels. And it definitely doesn’t matter that Faison was once on some show. What was that called again?
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.