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Tampa’s new Rocca restaurant scores our food critic’s first ever ‘10′

Tableside mozzarella, fresh ingredients and elevated Italian classics make for culinary splendor. | Restaurant review
Rocca’s mozzarella cart is a showstopper. Chef Bryce Bonsack got the idea while working at a restaurant in Brooklyn. Rebecca Miles creates a dish on the mozzarella cart on Thursday, December 12, 2019. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

TAMPA ― At Rocca, there are at least three different types of olive oil.

There’s a Ligurian version, a golden elixir that’s floral and soft. There’s a Sicilian oil that’s deeply aromatic with an almost spicy finish. And then there’s the Spanish Venta del Baron, an award-winning pale green oil that’s fruity and herbaceous and comes draped over a plate of haphazardly torn basil, fresh mozzarella and tomatoes (more on that showstopper dish later). Each oil plays a special part at this Italian restaurant, which opened in October on the bottom floor of the Pearl apartments in Tampa Heights.

Thoughtful and finessed touches run throughout the menu at Rocca. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Thoughtful and finessed touches run throughout the menu at this newcomer, an homage to the Italian family chef and partner Bryce Bonsack trained with while living in the Piedmont region of Italy.

RELATED: This new Tampa Heights restaurant is a ‘love letter’ to one Italian family

A Tampa native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, the 30-year-old chef’s resume includes stints at several esteemed New York City restaurants, including the since-shuttered Corton and Blanca, a lauded tasting menu restaurant inside Roberta’s in Brooklyn. Both spots at one point garnered two Michelin stars from the esteemed restaurant rating system.

Rocca is Bonsack’s first solo venture, and he hits it out of the park.

An evening here starts with tiny nuggets of Grana Padano cheese aged for 16 months — a salty, rich treat that awakens the taste buds. Then, the bread arrives. Some folks might give a little side-eye to a restaurant charging for bread service ($5), but here, it’s absolutely worth it: Ligurian-style focaccia arrives golden and spongy, glistening with an olive oil-pockmarked crust. And thick slices of crusty sourdough are accompanied by the Sicilian oil, which tops a ramekin of lemony butter and flaky sea salt. Order this with a group, because otherwise you’ll be tempted to eat the entire plate yourself.

You have to pay for the bread, but it's well worth it, dreamy focaccia and sourdough served with lemon butter and sea salt. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Wherever possible, fresh herbs and vegetables from Bonsack’s mother’s garden make an appearance, and certain dishes change based on both the season and the chef’s whimsy each week. Dishes, many emblazoned with flowery motifs, carry a similarly personal touch.

On one occasion, I was blown away by an appetizer of eggplant, red peppers and hazelnuts ($13). Layered with crispy chickpeas fried with kaffir lime and Calabrian chiles, the dish delivered a multifaceted flavor punch that fired on all cylinders. While that dish has taken a seasonal break from the menu, it’s been replaced by an equally winning plate of cauliflower ($13), where whole florets arrive bronzed and buttery atop a bed of pureed cauliflower and wisps of salty, delicious bagna cauda, a garlicky and anchovy-rich sauce. Crispy leaves of kale, juicy orange segments and thin discs of watermelon radishes deliver welcome freshness, crunch and color.

Rocca’s cauliflower dish comes with cauliflower two ways: whole florets arrive bronzed and buttery atop the pureed veg. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
The Little Gem Salad has mint, shallots, pecorino romano, breadcrumbs and an anchovy vinaigrette. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

The pastas in particular feel emblematic of Bonsack’s prowess with Italian ingredients and technique — all made-in house, cooked perfectly al dente and delivered in simple, classic preparations.

Among the more unique spins is the raviolini del plin ($24), tiny pasta pouches containing a spicy Calabrese salami and stracchino filling. The pasta is draped in a buttery citrus sauce — tart with orange juice and zest — which makes for a surprising pairing at first bite, but one that ultimately won me over. On the richer side, a beautifully orange egg yolk is tucked inside the tortello al uovo ($22). When broken into, the bright marigold yolk pools onto the filling of ricotta and marsala wine and mushroom medley, a hearty and wintry treat.

In a similar vein, the ricotta gnudi ($21) packs an undeniable autumnal flair, and the pillowy dumplings come sidling sweet hunks of acorn squash wrapped in brown butter. A shower of pumpkin seeds and finely grated ricotta salata cheese add both crunch and a creamy kick of flavor.

In the raviolini del plin ($24), tiny pasta pouches contain a spicy Calabrese salami and stracchino filling. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Gnudi comes with acorn squash, brown butter, pumpkin seeds and ricotta salata. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Of the larger, entree-style dishes, the Sakura pork collar is excellent. The pork, a heritage hybrid bred in the Midwest, gets a porchettalike spin, charred on the grill and cooked until medium, served over stewed cannellini beans flavored with a carrot and tomato sofrito ($29). A fine dust of fennel pollen coats the pork, which is tender and juicy and served alongside sweet and soft roasted fennel, snappy raw fennel and an herb-packed bagna verde, which is like an Italian spin on salsa verde made thick with milk-soaked bread and anchovies.

Rocca is an undeniably handsome restaurant, outfitted with blond wood and deep cobalt blue accents, dangling potted plants and a warm and airy atmosphere. Service is polished and attentive, without ever feeling intrusive. It’s striking that a fine dining restaurant of this caliber manages to come off as welcoming and warm as this one does — worlds away from stuffy.

The Sakura pork collar is accompanied by fennel both cooked and crunchy and a white bean stew. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

The staff is well-versed in the entire menu, including the impressive wine selection tucked inside a humidity-controlled wine cellar anchoring the dining room. And if you’re still waffling over which Brunello di Montalcino to splurge for, the restaurant’s sommelier can lend a helping hand. For cocktail connoisseurs, a list of original and classic options include a delicious Paper Plane ($12), made with Aperol and Four Roses Bourbon, and the Skyline Spritz ($12) — a balanced and bubbly libation with a citrusy finish.

Service at Rocca is exceptional, attentive and helpful but never intrusive. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
For dessert, try the chocolate sorbetto, a vegan option topped with hazelnuts and olive oil. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

A short list of desserts continues the restaurant’s vibe of balance and restraint, like a light basil custard ($9) topped with spiced apples, streusel and fresh Thai and purple basil; or the chocolate sorbetto ($9), a creamy (yet vegan) treat tucked under a shower of crunchy hazelnuts, flaky salt and more of that buttery Ligurian olive oil.

Basil custard is a lighter option, served with rum apples and streusel. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

But wait. We’ve got to talk about the caprese.

Bonsack hatched the idea for a mozzarella cart ($28) while working at Blanca in Brooklyn. Every day, he’d watch as a prep cook from next door came over and got to work, pulling and stretching some 50 pounds of mozzarella for the night’s dinner service.

At Rocca, a server re-creates this act of culinary splendor, and it’s pure dinner theater: friendly and chatty, without being overbearing; visually interactive with an element of danger (think tableside guacamole but with 185-degree water and knives); and infinitely photogenic for the millennial and Gen Z set. (“Oh, I’m all over Instagram,” a server explained one evening, while pulling thick ropes of cheese as if they were taffy.)

The fresh mozzarella is served with tomatoes, basil, olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

The final product is a mosaic of warm and stretchy pieces of mozzarella, tomatoes and pieces of roughly torn fresh basil topped with flaky Maldon salt, a few grinds of black pepper, a healthy pour of that Spanish olive oil and a drizzle of a sweet and rich 25-year aged balsamic vinegar.

“I’ve never seen anyone eat fresh mozzarella and not smile,” Bonsack said.

He’s right: It’s hard not to break out into a smile when the cart arrives. It’s hard to stop smiling when dining here, period.

It's pure dinner theater. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Food: 10

Atmosphere: 9

Service: 10

If you go

323 W Palm Ave., Tampa; (813) 906-5445;

Hours: Dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Appetizers, $13 to $15; pastas, $21 to $27; entrees, $29 to $32.

Recommended dishes: mozzarella cart, cauliflower, gnudi, pork collar