TAMPA — After returning home from the kitchens of New York determined to open his own restaurant, Tampa native Bryce Bonsack traveled to Italy’s Piedmont region to do some soul searching.
But Bonsack was on another mission, too. If he wanted his place to focus on pasta, which he mastered while leading pasta production and cooking pasta courses as a sous chef at Brooklyn tasting-menu eatery Blanca, he needed to see where it came from.
“I wanted to see if I could get inside the head of an Italian kitchen and find out what inspires them,” Bonsack said. “Their attention to where their ingredients are coming from and the balance of those ingredients together is what stood out to me the most.”
He found what he was looking for in the Roccas, a family who run a high-end restaurant doing traditional Italian fare, polished but not the dots-and-foam stuff he was used to at Michelin-starred joints like Blanca.
Bonsack said a mutual friend introduced him to Leonardo Rocca and his family in 2017, when Bonsack was staying in the Italian town of Bra, about 20 minutes away from the Roccas in Monforte d’Alba. They quickly hit it off.
It wasn’t long before the family sat the chef down for his first Sunday dinner: six courses served by candlelight and on white tablecloths. Bonsack said a meal such as this, hosted at their restaurant Albergo Ristorante Giardino “Da Felicin” inside a multipurpose building that is essentially their home (complete with a boutique hotel and their living quarters), is de rigueur for them.
“I was a welcome guest, but it wasn’t like they were putting on a show. This is normal,” he said. “I had goosebumps the whole time.”
Bonsack hopes to deliver a similar kind of hospitality at Rocca. Launched last week at the bottom level of the Pearl apartments, Rocca is the fine-dining Italian restaurant he and seven silent partners have brought to Tampa Heights.
“It’s not going to be like that for everybody, but if you can just get a little bit of that on the plate and in the ambience of your restaurant, that’s the core of what we want to do,” Bonsack said.
The Roccas, whom Bonsack lived with during his seven-month stint in Italy, gave the chef a base headquarters as he bounced around a bit, hitting regions such as Rome, Liguria and Tuscany. He made pasta and did various prep jobs at their restaurant throughout the day and filled in wherever they needed him for dinner service.
Before leaving, he asked the family if he could name his restaurant after them.
“They said, ‘You can, just no spaghetti and meatballs or pineapple pizza,’” Bonsack recalled. “So I said, ‘Deal.’
“They’re not involved in the restaurant financially or anything like that. It’s sort of a love letter to them, if you will — their hospitality, who they are, their lifestyle. It’s just a very surreal experience being with them.”
Rocca chef de cuisine Nick Orr and general manager and sommelier Andrew Harris got their own taste of the experience. Like executive chef and partner Bonsack, they both stayed with the Roccas ahead of the restaurant’s opening, Harris while researching Italian food and beverage earlier this year and Orr during white truffle season in 2018.
Orr, who has also lived in New York and worked for Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, first cooked with Bonsack at modern Atlanta Greek spot Kyma. Bonsack reunites with Orr in the Rocca kitchen, and Harris spearheads the front of house. Harris was most recently a general manager at Tampa stalwart Mise en Place, and before that, a sommelier and manager for Atlanta eateries Bacchanalia, Floataway Cafe and Star Provisions.
“We come from very prestigious restaurants and kitchens, Michelin stars and all that ... I think we want to make Rocca a little bit more of a fun environment,” Bonsack said. “No white tablecloths or anything.”
Pasta made on-site daily drives Bonsack’s ever-evolving bill of fare. Guests will grub on dishes classic to Piedmont and others that are more regional and have an American or Floridian sensibility. One highlight is the ravioli del plin, a pasta shape the chef crafted regularly in Monforte d’Alba. His version is presented nontraditionally with a salami Calabrese filling and fresh orange and Grana Padano cheese.
Starters and a few meat dishes are available as well.
“Not everything on the menu is even close to what they do in Piedmont. There are a couple things that are straight out of the playbook, but I decided back in Italy before coming back out here if I tried to write every single thing out by the gram, it wouldn’t turn out the same,” Bonsack said.
"I didn’t really want to do it verbatim, dish by dish. But at the same time, I do want their sort of ethos involved, and their thought process, and I think I captured that.”
The restaurant puts less of an emphasis on Florida ingredients than originally planned, but Bonsack said he and his team will try their best to use them when possible.
Rocca takes a house-made approach to everything from the breads featuring natural fermentation to the tableside cart pulling fresh mozzarella. A fan of tableside theatrics and eager to give diners a deeper look into what’s going on behind the scenes, Bonsack foresees the mozzarella cart being something everyone wants to hail, at least early on.
“I think our food is very approachable,” Orr said.
“But we want to keep it edgy," Bonsack said, "have some fun music playing.”
Pendant lighting, all sorts of hanging plants, bookshelves stocked with kitchen lit, soft wood tables, floor-to-ceiling windows and splashes of color add to the relaxed, minimalistic setting.
There’s also the reservations-only Officina, which is Italian for “workshop.” This is the “pasta dojo” where Bonsack eventually aims to serve a separate tasting menu in the evenings. As many as 10 guests can pay $150 or so a head to eat 12 to 15 courses.
On the beverage side, the humidity-controlled wine cellar is a highlight of the dining room. The selection of rotating vino offers a few hundred labels with a heavy Italian influence. However, some American, French and natural wines are also listed.
Cocktail enthusiasts will find original and classic options (think a Paper Plane or an amaretto sour) alongside mocktails, each built upon house-made ingredients like shrubs, tinctures, sodas and syrups. Harris said the bar will mirror the kitchen’s penchant for switching it up with constantly changing libations.
“We’ll really be able to play and have some fun with both the cocktail and dinner menu,” Harris said.
According to Bonsack, the Roccas plan to visit in December, when they close their restaurant for the winter season. He and his team are excited to show the family Tampa, and to be opening in the city at this time.
“We all could’ve gone and done something else,” Orr said, “but we feel like Tampa is a great market.”
Bonsack added: “We’re ready to embrace that. There’s such a strong Italian background and history in Tampa.”
And with no pineapple pizza or spaghetti and meatballs in sight, the Roccas should be pleased with the restaurant.
“As Nino Rocca (the family’s patriarch) told me, the French — which is most of our background in cooking — love the recipe, the Italians love the ingredient,” Bonsack said. “And so I think 70 percent of our work is really just finding the ingredients and putting them on a plate, rather than coming up with a magic, secret-sauce recipe or the next Bloomin’ Onion.”
IF YOU GO
323 W Palm Ave., Tampa, across the street from Armature Works. roccatampa.com.
The restaurant does dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. In addition to the Officina, weekend brunch service and a patio are in store for the future.