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Italian with an American's spin

August 21, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

The woman pushing an overburdened shopping cart past the restaurant stopped and told a waiter what the new place needed was a pizza sign in the window.

"But we don't serve pizza," said the waiter with a smile. "The food is rustic Italian."

The waiter could have added, "... from an American chef who has fallen head over heels for Italy." Don Dickman, who was last seen in these parts as chef at a Palos Verdes country club now owned by The Donald, and before that as Michael Roberts' right-hand man at the long-gone Trumps (nothing to do with The Donald), has resurfaced at the helm of Rocca.

Its dining room is painted a soft Naples yellow, with ornate light fixtures, white tablecloths and booths covered in green- and red-striped fabric. It feels like the kind of old San Francisco place where you'd go for a loaf of sourdough and a whole Dungeness crab. But Rocca is on 4th Street in Santa Monica, just west of a ballroom dance classroom and diagonally across from Border Grill.

The menu, printed every day on brown paper, is much more ambitious than most cookie-cutter Italians'. For antipasti, Dickman is serving an arugula salad embellished with Gorgonzola-stuffed figs wrapped in prosciutto, for example. A rough-hewn Tuscan bread salad (panzanella) suits the weather perfectly, its cold chunks of heirloom tomato, crunchy cucumbers and sweet red onion tossed with cubes of bread, olive oil, vinegar and basil.

I don't quite see what he's going for with bagna cauda, Piedmont's famous "hot bath" dip. His is unusually mild, without the kick of massive amounts of garlic cooked with anchovy in butter and olive oil. It tastes more like something you'd dip that Dungeness crab into. What's more, it's got chopped walnuts resting at the bottom. Still, it comes with an appealing array of farmers market vegetables.

When it comes to primi, Dickman cooks like an Italian grandmother. His potato gnocchi, cloaked in a fine oxtail ragu, are as tender as fresh mozzarella. Spaghetti made with the ancient Roman grain farro is delicious tossed with fennel, olive oil and breadcrumbs.

Dickman's passion for Italian food comes through in his main courses, too, which range from handmade wild boar sausages with beans or chicken saltimbocca to a meaty lamb chop crowned with ribbons of radicchio. His is an entirely personal menu that steers clear of the usual suspects in favor of gutsier choices.

The place is brand-new and it feels it. Service is pleasant but green enough that it could be difficult if things get busier. Let's hope that Dickman holds onto his convictions and that people will come, not for the 10 dishes they know but to try something new and distinctive.



Where: 1432-A 4th St., Santa Monica

When: Dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5:30-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Beer and wine. Valet parking across the street in front of Border Grill.

Cost: Antipasti, $5-$11; primi, $7-$12; main courses, $11-$18; desserts, $4-$6

Info: (310) 395-6765

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