By Nancy Miller
Photos by Jolea Brown
His childhood may be only a memory, but the kid is alive and flourishing in Rocco Cadolini’s heart. “As we grow up, we become kids again,” he says. He’s still able to recall the mac and cheese his mother made and he ate with a spoon when he was a child in Italy. Sensing the simple blandness of that dish wouldn’t appeal to the sophisticated, adult tastes of his restaurant guests, he created the indulgent Mac and Cheese Alla ROC made with béchamel and truffles. He’s effusive when he talks about it, saying, “It’s eat me, eat me, eat me more.”
Effusive is synonymous with everything about Cadolini, chef and owner of ROC. He talks fast. He gestures with abandon. His Italian accented, perfect English is engaging and charming. You want to hear his stories and eat his food. Fortunately, he has plenty of stories and tells them with humorous lavishness. And he has a menu that reads like a delectable novel. But reading isn’t believing. Experiencing the dishes is when you begin to understand the real Cadolini.
“I grew up in Sorrento, one of the most gorgeous places on earth. My grandmother was a farmer so she always cooked organic and fresh produce. My mom was an excellent cook. Most of my recipes and ideas come from them. They cooked things in simple, old-fashioned style. The main ingredients spoke for themselves,” he says.
Foods such as cornmeal and eggplant, string beans and potatoes, cornmeal with broccoli rabe and fava beans were foods he hated then but now likes so much that when he visits Sorrento on vacation, he requests them. One dish that has always been one of his favorites and was served at family meals on Sundays is Gnocchi a la Sorrentina (gnocchi with tomatoes and mozzarella). It made the trip from Sorrento to the menu at ROC.
As a child, he was given the responsibility of peeling garlic and potatoes, chopping tomatoes and onions and peeling eggplant that would be marinated in olive oil. He is happy to delegate to his staff at ROC those tasks he hated. “In September, my mom and grandmother would buy 20 cases of plum tomatoes to make tomato sauce for the winter. We crushed, steamed and jarred the tomatoes as a family. It was a tortuous job, especially for a hyper kid like me,” he remembers.
He may not have liked some of the mundane tasks a kitchen requires, but he discovered he had a natural connection to cooking. That led to his attending the restaurant management school where his father was an accountant and to summer internships at a few of Europe’s finest hotels. Following a time in the Italian army, he was ready to make a big move.
“At age twenty, I showed up in New York, the city that never sleeps, like me. I didn’t need much sleep. I was always on,” he says. There he met one of New York’s leading restaurateurs who would later become his partner in a Tribeca restaurant.
He inherited his mother’s passion for food and cooking. He has nothing against recipes, but says having devotion to the food will make any recipe better. “You can copy someone else’s dish, but having energy and passion will make it taste completely different,” he says.
Cadolini returns to Italy every year or two. He will go to Sorrento or the Amalfi coast next June to buy more decorations for ROC, which he refers to as his gorgeous baby.
Although ROC is booming as one of Louisville’s most talked about new restaurants, he also has to keep an eye on Baci and Abbricci, his restaurant in the Williamsburg area of New York. Williamsburg reminds him of Bardstown Road. Maybe that’s why he has such an affinity for the area.
Both at his New York restaurant and ROC, he often explains to his guests that Italian food varies not only from region to region, but from town to town. It’s a discussion of which he never tires and which intrigues customers.
Nor does he tire of telling the story of “Why Louisville?” His father-in-law was born and raised in Louisville but moved to New York 55 years ago. “One of his cousins lives in Louisville although he bought a loft in Tribeca. We became very good friends. He invited my wife, my children and me to come to Louisville for Thanksgiving five or six years ago. I came that year and the year after. I liked it and decided to open a restaurant with him. I’m still an Italian New Yorker but now that I’m based here, I’m growing to become a Louisvillian,” says Cadolini.
Regardless of the region from which any of his dishes originate, they have the Cadolini cachet: “The food we serve reflects the basics, only the best and freshest of everything, and carefully made sauces. There’s no cheating or taking short cuts. We don’t make miracles, just food the way it’s supposed to be made. I wake up happy every day. I come into the restaurant to be sure the chefs are making good food, the bartenders are making good drinks and the waiters are doing their job. Everything is done properly and works well. That’s the only way it should be done, and that’s how it’s done.” VT
1327 Bardstown Rd.