"Wow, I do feel like I'm in a deli in New York," my friend said as she looked around Rocco's N.Y. Italian Deli.
I could see her point. There was the no-frills, kinda cramped atmosphere, the shelves of imported-from-Italy groceries, the display cases of meats and cheeses and pastries. Only thing missing was New York attitude, not that we're complaining.
Shortly after we settled in for lunch, our server arrived with menus and mentioned that the salads were a new addition to the menu. The Buffalo Chicken Salad ($12.95) sounded particularly appealing, at least in part because it hinted at the original inspiration without being slavishly devoted to it. The very large plate of lettuce was tossed with a vat of grape tomatoes and just enough barbecue-ranch dressing (seriously; I truly hate overdressed salads) to add moisture and flavor. Then it was topped with a very generous amount of large chunks of white-meat chicken that had been marinated in a sauce that tasted suspiciously like Frank's Red Hot (which would be an authentic touch), plus sauteed onions, raw red onion and large slices of mozzarella cheese. It was a huge salad, really enough for three lunches.
And it revealed the only Achilles' heel we detected at Rocco's: iceberg lettuce. Iceberg is the Wonder Bread of lettuces. Yeah, I know there are still some people out there who like it, but with so many more interesting varieties available, I sure don't understand why. Some restaurants tend to use it because it's less perishable than many others, but I wouldn't think that would be a factor here, considering the traffic that Rocco's seems to draw.
At any rate. The iceberg also blemished the side salad that was served with our baked ziti ($11.95), which otherwise was a decent enough salad, with a flavor-packed vinaigrette. (Caesar was another option, and I sure hope they use romaine in that one.)
The ziti itself? No iceberg or Wonder Bread in sight; this big platter of al-dente pasta was graced with a Mama-in-her-rolled-down-stockings marinara with deep, slowly steeped flavor and an appealingly pulpy texture, plus just the right amount of melty cheese. Two garlic knots were served on the side and were offbeat in that they were sort of light and crisp-crusted instead of the dense knots we usually encounter and drizzled with what tasted like a blend of butter and olive oil instead of only the latter.
Fried ravioli ($6.95) were a bit of a revelation. These large pasta discs had been filled with a somewhat coarse (in a good way) ricotta-based filling and then breaded lightly and gently fried. These were by far the best version of this dish I've ever had, and even better with the accompanying marinara.
Considering the portions, we already were committed to to-go boxes, so we decided to just make them bigger and indulge in dessert. Cannolis ($2.99 each) it would be, and they turned out to have characteristically smooth, rich filling with just a few bits of chocolate, and golden-crisp shells that had obviously just been filled.
Service throughout was very good, our pleasant and agreeable server doing her best to serve a bunch of tables at once. The decor isn't much, but somehow that's part of the charm.
When we returned to the office and replied when the boss asked where we'd lunched, he said, "Oh, is that the place behind the gas station?"
Yup. But somehow, that's part of the charm, too.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or email her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.