This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a new regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
It hard to believe Mario Batali once worked in the kitchen of Rocco Restaurant, the quiet Italian eatery on Thompson Street which typifies the bygone sleepier aspects of Village life. There's no flash about the old tile floor or tin ceilings, both holdovers from when Rocco Stanziano opened the place in 1922. The wooden shelves behind the small bar have warped and sagged with age. And the traditional Italian food isn't exactly exciting, or even particularly flavorful. (It's hard for me to understand, or forgive, bland bruschetta.)
But Rocco has other virtues you'd be hard pressed to find in a Batali place. You can watch life roll by. You can hear yourself think. You will not be rushed. And the staff—in black pants, white shirts and black ties—is friendly to a fault. I watched as a Village biddie, a longtime patron, tried out various chairs, Goldilocks-style, until she found one that met her approval. She then assumed solo ownership of an entire four-top. Without being asked, a waiter brought her a glass of white wine and an accompanying glass of ice with which she periodically cooled the drink. The current management—which bought the place from the Rocco clan in the late '80s, but, cannily, still pastes Stanziano's image on the cover of every menu—obviously knows the old lady's wants and doesn't mind catering to them. A regular's a regular.
Other Village oldsters helped people the place on a recent Tuesday evening. The uninitiated were at a minimum; most diners were familiar with the relaxed surroundings. One couple commented that they had frequented Rocco's in the '60s and found nothing had changed. There were no shady types, but, like every self-respecting New York Italian joint of a certain age, Rocco's has a touch of the Mob in its background. Legend has it Anthony "Tony Bender" Strollo ordered a hit here back in 1952. Some pulley tracks along the central wall seem to indicate that a sliding metal door used to divide the two main dining areas. The waiter winked when I asked about this. "For private gatherings," he said. "Mafia-style."
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