by Andrew Chalk
Saint Rocco’s may be the second most noticeable thing at Trinity Groves after only Santiago Calatrava’s magnificent bridge. Its massive marquee spelling out “Saint Rocco’s New York Italian” in enough bulbs to cause a blackout in a California electric utility. Someone must be checking them daily, as I only saw one not operating. Owners Phil Romano and Jay Valley may be the two people on earth whose life was the most changed by the invention of the LED bulb.
The best architectural feature is undoubtedly the decision to make the third floor a gigantic open space. It throws the downtown/Design District/Uptown Dallas skyline in your face with Calatrava’s startling bridge in the foreground.
Step inside and you recognize the applicability of the description “New York Italian” as Saint Rocco’s lifts out all the imprimaturs of that genre and puts them in Dallas. At a media event this week I was reminded of them at a place that I have been to a couple of times before, but not in the last year. There is the long scarlet trim to the open kitchen. The striking trays of raw vegetables, and rows of canned tomatoes stand on-guard, sentry like, above the pass. The black wood furniture, red carpet, and crooner music each inject the New York Italian character.
We were given a journey through the menu that at once reinforced the message that it was inspired by ‘mama’s cooking’ at the home of first-generation American Jay Valley. But also showed another part of Valley’s life. As well as co-owner and executive chef here, he came to Saint Rocco’s via many years at Eatzi’s (once of Romano’s most challenging concepts).
I could see the entrails of both as we were taken through the menu. A colorful Caprese Salad bathed in olive and balsamic oil whet the appetite. A Caesar Salad had a lively crunch and essence of garlic, although this one seemed to skip the anchovy. Arugula Cacio e Pepe had a spicy bite.
Roast Garlic Fettuccine with Wild Mushroom Sauce was exactly in the mould of what I expected next. Solid, definitively Italian food designed to be paired with robust red wine and eaten in ambitious quantities. This was followed by two rather pleasant surprises: first, Skillet Seared Salmon was Atlantic salmon topped with a white wine butter sauce, basil, and diced tomato. When everyone had served themselves (we were dining dysfunctional family style) I hoovered up the remaining sauce and lapped it across my salmon. It just seemed like the right thing to do. The salmon had unusually bold flavors, having been cooked rare, and paired well with the sweetness in the cream. Maybe not mama’s Italian, but she would have approved of its inclusion.
The second surprise was a Fennel Crusted Roast Beef Tenderloin. I would have set this place to serve medium-quality steak, but what we got was some of the most tender, succulent beef that I have had for some time. Easily on a par with premium Dallas steakhouses, it was almost cuttable with a fork. Valley gets some of his steak from Allen Brothers, the noted Chicago supplier. Both this course and the salmon stride confidently out of the ‘red sauce’ arena where some observers has fixed Saint Rocco’s.
Finally a dessert of Ricotta Cheesecake with amaretto black cherry sauce was rich with the cheese, like a cheesecake is supposed to be.
Wines come from a list that is mainly California and not overpriced. Italophiles will be rewarded with some interesting selections, even Dallas rarities like the white wine Arneis.
Overall, Saint Rocco’s is a good place to go for Italian in Dallas and expect it to continue to shine out over the Trinity for years to come.