The first time I had Rocco’s impeccable fried calamari it was because I needed to get my car inspected. It was late 1996 and, having just moved back to New York City after three years in Washington, DC, I was desperate for a “good” inspection shop but intimidated by the notion of finding one. So I asked my friend Jamie where to go.
“I don’t know,” she said, “Not around here, I don’t know.”
“Well where do you go?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said again.
Several seconds elapsed and then she said, “Why don’t you go to the Shell station at Ft. Hamilton Parkway and 65th Street?”
I had no idea where that was. But before I had the chance to ask, she said (with zero fanfare), “It’s right next to Rocco’s Calamari. You can have lunch while they do the inspection.”
“How do I get there? I asked.
Step into Rocco’s for the first time and you may experience momentary confusion. At right is a dining area with about 18 tables; to the left a couple more tables and a counter with four stools. Immediately ahead you’ll see Rocco at the register. He’s wearing a tight black tee shirt — biceps apparent — and he's speaking with customers or taking phone orders. If it’s lunchtime the place is sure to be packed — yes with people sitting at the tables, but also with a dozen or so others, standing alongside and studying the contents of Rocco’s food selection. You see, Rocco’s is a cafeteria. A really good cafeteria.
You could sit down, ask for a menu, and order — but don’t. You need to see what they have. Many foods are offered just once a week and mixing is encouraged. What that means is, if you want, you can order one bocconcini ball, a single spoonful of green bean and potato salad, three half-shell clams, one butterflied grilled shrimp, one crab cake, and a sliver of lasagna. They’ll do that. In fact — according to Rocco — “that’s the magic” of the concept.
I know of many other Italian cafeteria-style restaurants in Brooklyn. In my neighborhood alone, there is Vinny’s on Smith Street (excellent pasta e fagiole, grilled chicken paillard, and arugula salad), Francesca’s at Henry and Union (I order a salad with fried shrimp or calamari on top; they have pizza — I hear it’s been improving), and Catania on Atlantic Avenue (a newer place that I reviewed recently on the Slice blog — great Sicilian style pizza and homemade pastry). But none of these places — nor others I have seen around town — offer the scope of Rocco’s selection.
The one item you won’t see in Rocco’s display cases is what I consider his pièce de résistance: fried calamari. That’s because it’s made to order and dished up behind the scenes. The resulting squid is tender and not rubbery on the inside, light and crispy on the outside. It’s more reminiscent of tempura than the standard cornmeal- or flour-dusted affair typical of Thai restaurants and sports bars. Quality-wise, it’s better than the stuff at fancy places, and it’s served with a choice of three marinara sauces (aka “gravies”) in varying levels of spiciness. (Rollover above photo for a closer look — that's the medium sauce.)
I asked Rocco — who purchased the business in 1981 (it was previously called “Joe’s Italian Cafeteria”) — how he decided on calamari as a theme. When he took over, he told me, the restaurant was selling about 27 pounds of calamari each Friday. He thought, why not make it available five days a week instead of just one. (Rocco’s is closed on Sundays and Mondays.) He tweaked the recipe a bit, added “Calamari” to the restaurant’s name, and sales of squid skyrocketed to 2,000 pounds a week (at its peak, a few years ago). That includes not just the fried product (which accounts for about 75% of Rocco's squid sales) but also other dishes, such as an amazing “stuffed calamari” (Fridays only), pasta with calamari, and a seafood salad that counts calamari as one of several of its ingredients.
My second favorite food at Rocco’s — and I opt for it more often than fried calamari, because it’s healthier — is the octopus salad. Again, tenderness is the key. Rocco’s cooks Portuguese octopus for at least two hours in a huge pot of boiling water and then chills it for a day before cutting it up. The salad is a mix of octopus chunks about an inch thick, olives, capers, both sweet and spicy cherry peppers, and garlic. The hot peppers furnish a kick that separates this octopus salad from any other I've had. Thank you, Rocco, for your Calabrian roots: I could eat this spicy salad all day.
One time several years ago, with my friend Tim, I picked up an octopus salad (and a certain excellent sandwich) from a different, smaller Brooklyn restaurant that's also set up with food on display. When we got back to my place to enjoy it, we couldn't. It was fishy and inedible. I called the restaurant and told the owner, very politely, that the octopus salad didn't taste good. The guy told me he would believe me except he had just eaten it himself and it was fine. "It's the best octopus money can buy. It's from Portugal," he said.
It was not easy (because I really like that certain excellent sandwich they have), but I boycotted the place for at least three years. When I returned (for the sandwich), the guy looked at me — first time he'd seen me in years — and I knew right away that he knew that I had called to complain about the octopus salad three years earlier. His eyes seemed to say, "I knew you'd be back. I know it's a good sandwich. And by the way, that octopus was fine."
But it wasn't.
For years — because I didn't bother to look into it — I figured that if octopus tastes fishy it must be due to issues of freshness and that therefore one should avoid previously-frozen octopus. But when Rocco told me that his octopus comes from Portugal (and arrives frozen, too), I knew I had to look into this. Here's one article that delves into the topic with a level of detail that would satisfy most people. It turns out that most octopus sold in the US is previously frozen, and that "the quality of octopus, like that of squid, does not suffer noticeably when it is frozen." It also says that fresh octopus spoils quickly.
So, now I get it. Rocco's treats its octopus with Respect (I've had it a dozen times or more, it has never tasted fishy). And that other place — well, maybe it was an off day.
The above photo shows the split order I had while interviewing Rocco last week: half fried calamari, half octopus salad. Remember, they'll do that.
Click the photo at the top of this post to see a video featuring Rocco's and their unbeatable calamari.