Looks like Chef Rocco has been making his way around the TV circuit lately while busily promoting his show. He’s been sighted (by me personally) on the Tonight Show making a huge mess of meatballs with Leno, and I mean mess. He was throwing stuff around everywhere and suddenly without warning produced a ready made dish which he pretended he had just put together. Only trouble is, I never even saw him make the tomato sauce. He was also on with Carson Daley proving once again that he could take vending machine food and make an oozing load of crap with it.
For those of you who are just dying of curiosity about Rocco’s eatery, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that ‘Rocco’s on 22nd Street’ is still open and serving the aforementioned meatballs to rave reviews. The bad news is that the review in New York Magazine is not a glowing one, and several dishes sound like you would not want to feed them to your cat. The prices are a bit steep for the fare offered. The place is also noisy which I happen to like, being a former Queens girl before I became a California girl. So, if you find yourself in New York City on east 22nd Street, and you happen to stumble into Rocco’s, stick with the “simple chicken, baked under a brick to a kind of crackly tenderness, then buried in sweet onions and bundles of rosemary.”
Last week we were promised an exciting series of events and catastrophes which culminate in a kitchen fire. Be sure to wear your fire retardant outfit as we go hand in hand into our second episode where we will share tears and laughter in “The Restaurant.”
Introduction to Chaos
Rocco is channeling John Travolta in a “Staying Alive” kind of way as he is strolling through Soho’s mean streets. But is he as relaxed and carefree as he appears? Oh no! This guy is a bundle of nerves that even a massive dose of Xanax cannot help. He tells us in a voiceover how he used to be ashamed of his Italian heritage but now he is proud of it and with the help of Mama’s meatballs he can bring honor back to his family name.
The deadline for the grand opening is close at hand and although Rocco observes that the staff is badly under trained and the construction crew is falling apart (more Xanax perhaps?) he has to face the inevitable and open the damn place. Only a few hours left, and we see Rocco standing outside shaking his head at the façade of the restaurant as he mumbles, “We’ll never make it.” I have a feeling things will only get worse from here on in. Sure enough we see a newspaper headline asking, “Will Rocco’s Open?”
Cut to interior: Plastic sheeting is being ripped off appliances, floors are being swept and the clean up commences all to the tune of Rocco’s continuing sarcasm – “We’ve got two hours, but relax!” Tony Robbins would kick Rocco’s ass real hard just about now.
Meanwhile Uzay is instructing the table setting staff rather harshly about the small forks versus the entrée forks and which should be removed from the table. Napkins are being rolled and everybody is nervous. Rocco looks at his watch and begins his address to the staff. He announces that this is a “Soft opening” and likens it to a dress rehearsal. There will be no paying guests, just family and friends but he does hope that they will get good tips.
Now he begins the Food Quiz which is basically asking the staff how each dish is made because that is the one form of refined torture that we all practice when we go out to dine and we expect answers. Apparently, the staff knows virtually nothing that even goes into the making of Chicken Parmigiana, one of the traditional and basic Italian dishes served at restaurants that aren’t even Italian. Rocco is very agitated and when they don’t even know what goes into the making of a meatball – the very foundation of this restaurant for God’s sake – he asks if he’s going to have to end up firing them. I say, do it, Rocco, they are worthless. Moving along he tells them that this business is all about pressure and intensity and learning how to work out your mistakes.
Burning Down the House
With only twenty minutes left, the finishing touches are put on the tables. We see rows of chickens on spits and everyone is asked if they are smiling over and over again.
Mercifully, Rocco is now distracted by the arrival of the first guests. He immediately launches into the sad tale of how 2 hours ago this was still a construction site and is expecting some sort of applause. Who wants to hear this? Next we see two older women arrive and one of them must have come straight from her street hooking job because she’s still dressed in her work clothes.
Topher, who is rapidly becoming the high camp waiter of the century, is rhapsodizing about the male flower of the zucchini to a table full of men while he’s in a near swoon. One thing about him though, he is working his tush off while the others are standing around gossiping about the trashy woman with her bozongas hanging out.
Orders are taken, yelled out in the kitchen and hopefully filled fast. Rocco is hollering for his fried food and “Where are the clams?” while a waiter prepares to pick up a dish and burns himself because the plate is hot. The orders come in fast and furious, but there is so much confusion that they are not being delivered to the tables, and we are beginning to hear cranky non-paying guests voice their complaints.
Amidst all of this drama a fire starts over at one of the stoves as Rocco says unnecessarily at this point, “I told you no fires. You used too much oil.” He says to cover it with sheet pans but no one is listening until one of them gets a fire extinguisher. Good move, genius! Rocco suddenly regains his long lost sense of sarcastic humor when he asks if everyone is having fun yet, and one idiot actually replies “Yes” during this crisis. Rocco then asks for an “Extra side of fire extinguisher dust, please” and we just know that heads are going to roll.
A particular table is giving Gideon a hard time because they have been waiting for 45 minutes and their food still has not arrived. Instead of being conciliatory and comforting, he asks them if they are being sarcastic with him and says he will go and shake his fist at the kitchen. He departs while calling one of the complainers “Bitch” very audibly.
Upon ordering a second bottle of red wine, a diner is told by Peter that the bar is out of red wine, but he’ll bring them some white wine. What a tool! The man pulls out his American Express credit card (is this another free plug for AmEx?) and tells him to run across the street and bring back a few bottles of red vino. Peter immediately sets out on his quest like the Man of La Mancha without seemingly telling anyone. He tries to purchase some wine at the restaurant across the street where he is turned down, and proceeds to move further down the street rationalizing that this is Saturday night and a liquor store somewhere in Manhattan has got to be open. When they were handing out brains, Peter was at the back of the line – way back. Let’s say at the very end. The diners are suffering from red wine withdrawal because they keep looking at the door and asking, “Is he coming back?” Suddenly, Peter reappears empty handed as red wine is brought out from the back and poured into plastic cups for the diners while he dumbly asks if there was actually red wine “In the house?” Yes Peter, now back to the lettuce patch for you!
Because of the fire and ensuing smoke the food critic from the New York Times leaves in disgust and will write his caustic review in the privacy of his home while eating a late night snack because he could not wait around the disastrous restaurant for one more minute. Rocco meanwhile is planning to have a meeting with everyone in the morning outlining all the mistakes that were made by the bumbling staff.
More Drama than Pagliacci
Rocco is giving an interview to another writer and tells him again how he grew up ashamed of being Italian and that this restaurant was going to be his way of making reparations. He even shows the infamous belt buckle bearing his name, “Rocco.” Bold as brass, paisano!
While plastic cups with wine for all (except Rocco’s friends who are still getting glasses like normal people) are passed around, a “Cease and Desist” letter arrives for Rocco. After just having rediscovered his Italian pride he must give up his name because there is another Rocco’s (Ristorante) at 181 Thompson Street and they had it first. Rocco prophetically asks, “What else can happen tonight?” Ask and ye shall receive! Next thing we know, the guests’ cars are being towed from the street in front of the restaurant and even under these dire circumstances a shameless plug is inserted as Topher shrieks, “Rocco’s Mitsubishi is next!”
Up your bunny with a meatball, sonny
Rocco’s secret weapon is now going to be pulled out – Mama! She tells us that she is 78 years old and has been working since the age of 6. She patiently examines the ingredients for her famous meatballs and is pleased that the butcher ground up the pork a little finer this time. She says lots of oil is essential. Didn’t we just have a fire because there was too much oil? Never mind, let’s move on. The more garlic, onion and fresh parsley Mama adds the better it makes her feel. When asked what her secret ingredient is, she steals freely from “Like Water for Chocolate” by replying, “Love, love, love.” She begins kneading this huge pan full of ground veal, pork, beef, breadcrumbs etc. and brags how this is her exercise. She doesn’t need to join Bally’s, she’s getting all the workout right here in Sonny-boy’s kitchen. Meanwhile, the watery tomato sauce is simmering on the stove and she takes a deep sniff as she says ecstatically, “That’s Italian – spaghetti and a-meatballs.”
Makeovers before getting smacked down
The girls on the staff are being sent to a hair salon for new styling. There is some surrealistic nightmare going on because they come out looking like the cast from “Grease.” (Pssst, did anyone know that “Grease” was called “Vaselina” in Mexico?)
Now it’s time to face the music. Rocco and his partners are there for a face-off with the staff. He says that the fun and games are over. They are called in one by one. The first one is the Hostess who was last seen sipping wine in the dining room when she thought nobody was looking. WRONG! She is told she’s not a good fit and she cannot continue to work there. I have sudden flashbacks to “For Love or Money” because Rocco’s dismissals are beginning to sound like Rob’s. Next on the hot seat – actually standing in front of them – is the Brazilian bombshell Caroline. She is told that she is a good waitress only to some of her customers and not to others. Whaaaaaat? This restaurant has not even officially opened, where does he come up with this dreck? Anyway, the devastated Caroline is told to go home and think about whether she wants to return the next day. Don’t go back, Caroline! Geez, how humiliating.
Topher is next and he says that he hopes he will leave the table in better shape than the ones before him. Rocco says boldly, “What if I tell you I’m in love with you?” Oh god! Topher then retaliates with his declaration of love for Rocco and the love fest continues with Topher being told that his work is great and after several more “I love yous” off he goes.
The hapless Peter is next and is told that he and his pal Gideon are going to be separated. Then Gideon is called and is told that he has been demoted to runner, while Lonn is told that he’s been promoted to waiter. This is all very confusing and Lonn, while being thrilled at his good fortune, tells Gideon he’s very sorry. Not as sorry as Gideon will be when his nemesis, the dastardly Laurent orders him to scrub out the toilets and to do it NOW. Suddenly, Gideon finds himself in the middle of a nightmare than he cannot seem to extricate himself from.
Rocco will now play Head Counselor as he rallies the kids once again with the question, “Why are we here?” “To make people happy!” He asks his favorite camper Topher, “What will you stop at?” Topher responds with “I will stop at nothing!” This brings a huge smile to Rocco’s face and feelings of loathing from the rest of the staff, no doubt.
Another Opening, Another Show
Tonight, we are told, starts the first night at Rocco’s. Everything else was meaningless before now, except that we were shown almost two hours of it. Tonight is the night of the paying customer. Oh, blessed is he.
The freshly printed pink paper menus are handed out and the clientele is ordering fast and furiously. The dishes are served and almost as quickly, the complaints come pouring in. As we see a plate containing 4 HUGE toxic red charred shrimp (heads, eyes and all) being set down, the customer says that they are “disgusting and raw.” At another table, the merits of meatballs are discussed: Mama DiSpirito’s versus the ones that this particular gonzo’s mother makes. He grandly states about Mama D. “She don’t know what she’s doing. If I could, I would tell her to pack it in.” When she later stops by the table he heaps her meatballs with praise and says they’re great, they’re the best.
Fran Drescher arrives and I have to turn down the television because her voice is taking the finish off my furniture. You’d think she was royalty or at least had a show currently. The only thing she’s ever done that validates her presence on the planet was to play Bobby Fleckstein in “This is Spinal Tap.”
In any case, Meatball Man is now going to make his presence felt by yelling across several tables at Fran, “Hey Fran, ain’t nobody makes meatballs like my mom (we can tell, she made you!). You gotta come over for meatballs.” I’m almost feeling sorry for Fran because she has a scared smile pasted on her face.
While Rocco is toasting in the kitchen, “Here’s to never making pizza again,” Mr. Meatball kicks is up a notch by saying, “Getting dinner here is like pulling teeth from a friggin’ cow” and now it becomes very clear to me that despite my thinking that he’s a minor mafioso, he’s actually a bovine dentist.
Frenchie, the American Idol outcast drops by to pose for a quick photo opportunity with Rocco and the evening is truly beginning to feel like a Broadway opening. Somebody tells Rocco that it must be hard to have to go around and kiss the girls all night. HAR HAR!
Gideon’s Slip Up
I was just breathing easier, when the evening’s ultimate disaster occurs and it isn’t even center stage. Gideon slips on something and falls hard on his elbow and everything smashes around him. He does not get a shred of sympathy from anyone while he is in obvious pain. Laurent shows what an empathetic man he is by saying, “That’s life. Go home.” Brrrrrrrrr. Finally, after Gideon tells some of the others about his accident, he is told to go to a hospital by Rocco and is put into a cab as he yells out, “I have no insurance, I have to go to a city hospital.”
While his friend Gideon is in terrible pain and probably relegated to some horrible hospital waiting room where he has to spend hours while people with bullet holes are whisked by him on gurneys, Peter is complaining that he had a table with a $400 tab where he was only left a $40 tip and they sat there all damn night. What a bunch of cheap bastards.
The evening is capped off by Mama, Rocco and the guests merrily dancing the Tarantella while Peter is saying how disappointed he is and how they took advantage of him. In a fitting end he hisses, “They’re standing right there and I don’t care” and blows them a fake kiss. You should have made one of those chin scraping Italian signs – that’s the only language they understand.
Next week’s delights include:
More trouble in the form of Caroline saying they are “No nice” [sic]. The customers and the staff are angry while we hear one customer say that he can get a better meal at the Olive Garden. Do you hear that, Andrew Firestone? Gideon returns with his arm in a sling.
Another order of meatballs? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll have Mama bring some out for you.