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MEDIA DISH

Reality at Rocco's, minus the cameras

August 06, 2003|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

New York — Every Sunday, millions of viewers are tuning in to "The Restaurant," the so-called reality TV show that's playing out like a train wreck with red sauce. On Rocco's opening night, kitchen fires and tempers erupted, and it's only gotten worse: Last Sunday, the third of six installments, it seemed as if everyone hated the place, from the beleaguered customers to the people grudgingly waiting on them.

By now, in real life, the cameras have rolled on to better things -- along with many of the "American Idol" wannabes in waiter-wear. And what's left is an Italian restaurant in the Flatiron neighborhood with possibly the worst word-of-mouth in history. Who would want to go to a place thrown together on an artificial deadline for a superficial show?

But it turns out Rocco's is becoming the "Gigli" of restaurants -- people are packing in to see if the reality can be as bad as the "reality" on TV.

And so last Friday night I joined them, seated in one of those massive booths so familiar from the small screen. The signs were not good: A bear of a waiter burst into a rousing chorus of "Funiculi, Funicula" while dancing largely around the hostess stand. The surly-looking TV manager lurked nearby. I was drinking Prosecco from the cheesiest of Champagne glasses -- the flat, bubble-dissipating kind -- and contemplating a huge pink souvenir menu and somehow not feeling surprised that Rocco DiSpirito, the celebrity chef of celebrity chefs, was nowhere to be seen. After all, the cameras were gone.

The sommelier, Fred Price, was there, though, and he offered the most encouraging words since "the food's better at the Olive Garden," a refrain in two of the first three installments. Uppity diners are walking out, he said, "with their tails between their legs," chagrined to find that "it's not as bad as they expected."

A few of the more annoying faces from "The Restaurant" flashed by in the massive dining room, but we were served by a seriously competent waitress (not blond or Brazilian) and a team of Latino busboys, smiling and efficient and smart about which food went to which table. A couple of very professional-looking crisp white chef's coats also made appearances through the night.

Rocco's claims to be "fully committed" until Aug. 22. But there were empty tables Friday night and, at 11 o'clock, only three bodies, all women's, were at the bar, in a neighborhood known for its singles action.

Admittedly, it is summer in a city that empties out on the weekend. But when I went trolling on restaurant message boards online, I had a hard time turning up any firsthand reports from Rocco's. On Chowhound.com, one poster finally wrote: "Surely someone will take one for the team here."

If you want to rub shoulders with true, nasty New Yorkers, this is probably not the place. The crowd was mostly very young, mostly dressed nothing like anyone on "Sex and the City" and, apparently, mostly not Manhattanites. I spotted none of the outer-borough bouffants that have dominated the screen, however.

Another order of the usual

The sad reality is that New York needed another San Gennaro hokefest like the interstate needs more Burger Kings. The city is starved for creativity right now, and this gifted chef is hunched over a deep-fryer (well, letting his underlings get spattered while he hits the talk shows), focused on the same kind of food you can get at any corner pasta-hero joint.

DiSpirito has tucked a few nouvelle Italian accents in among the cliches on the menu, like the crudo and salumi homages to Mario Batali. He's offering fried zucchini blossoms along with fried calamari. He's even sprung for an ambitious wine cellar to go with all the Coors that, along with the shameless American Express plugs, make the show feel like an infomercial.

Otherwise, his restaurant is just a lavishly financed variation on what early immigrants out of Campania thought would seduce the New World: sappy loud music (Burt Bacharach instead of Al Martino); visually abusive decor (madonna statue over the bar; Napoli bayscape mural formed of colored beads); rather pedestrian have-it-all menu.

At the same time that Italian food is being presented with intelligence and care all over the city, DiSpirito has taken it back to the fake '50s. And he's doing it right down the street from his own highly rated restaurant, Union Pacific, steps away from the well-regarded Beppe, around the corner from Via Emilia's respectful take on the cooking of Emilia-Romagna.

Rocco's has sausage and peppers and veal spiedini and a foosball table -- everything but an organ grinder. When the bread basket lands, it's accompanied by a little bowlful of the requisite herbed olive oil along with two bocconcini, each speared with a tiny Italian flag.

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