Israelis love their carbs, from bread and burekas to pizza and pasta. Fortunately, we are blessed with a great many Italian restaurants and pizzerias that are happy to supply this demand.
What this country does not have, however – akin to a Yemenite enclave such as Kerem HaTeimanim – is a “Little Italy” neighborhood characterized by concentrations of trattorias, eateries, pasticcerie (bakeries) and specialty delis. Now, at least, one may find in Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market a taste of what you can get in the Italian sections of Boston’s North End, New York’s Lower Manhattan, Chicago’s University Village and Baltimore Harbor’s Fell’s Point: Chef Yogev Yehros, formerly of Bellini’s, Mel & Michelle and (the late, lamented) Hotel de Ville, recently opened Rocco’s Italian-American Sandwich Shop.
Yehros, an American-Israeli chef who earned his American cuisine chops in the kitchens of Wolfgang Puck’s famous Spago in Las Vegas, joins a string of first-line local chefs (Omer Miller, Guy Gamzo and others) who have decided to bring their talents to the more affordable world of street food. Rocco’s is devoted to the art of traditional, slow-cooked classics served in a fast-food format.
Accordingly, the menu (in that baffling format of English names and Hebrew descriptions) is limited to just four items, three of which are representatives of that popular subcategory affectionately known as heroes (aka hoagies or submarines) – sandwiches assembled on long rolls and served warm. The one exception is the sole dessert: the ubiquitous tiramisu.
Thus, this is one of the few places in town where people who are sharing can easily order everything on the menu, perhaps eating some in situ and taking the rest home. This is the recommended course of action even for the sole diner, since it is difficult to pick a single favorite from the trio, or even assign the status of signature dish to either the meatball sub or the Italian beef hero.
SO, IN NO particular order of preference, let’s start with neither of these two: the eggplant parmigiana (Melanzane Hero, NIS 49), Rocco’s lone and very welcome vegetarian dish. As I was waiting for my two sandwiches, chef Yehros served me this filling of an eggplant parm sub on a plate. As it was, I was glad there was no bread involved – and this dish turned out to be the sleeper of my visit. The eggplant smothered in a rich mixture of melted mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses, drenched in a red sauce seasoned with basil and oregano and topped with leaves of fresh arugula, melted in the mouth, leaving behind an ocean of flavor. Eggplant Parmesan is not commonly found in Italian restaurants in this country, so this was a real treat. In fact, it may be the best eggplant parmigiana I have had anywhere, anytime.
Next was the first of the two trademark Rooco’s sandwiches, the Italian Chicago Beef (NIS 52) with giardiniera, an authentic relish of pickled vegetables, primarily Sicilian peppers and cauliflower. The tender, boneless beef that had been marinated in savory stock and cooked for hours was sliced razor thin and piled high, and then layered with the tangy veggies that were the perfect condiment, and crammed into a chewy roll together with extra pickles and arugula. Just one bite and I was transported back to the Windy City, where I had last enjoyed the real thing – which is exactly what Rocco’s serves.
Last but not least was the Meatball Hero (NIS 49), the initial inspiration for Rocco’s, according to the chef. These unique meatballs – a mixture of coarse and fine ground beef plumped with soaked bread, Parmesan and ricotta cheese – are covered in the same tomato sauce as the eggplant, then blanketed in additional melted cheese (mozzarella and Parmesan) before the sandwich is closed. In the end, I chose to eat the sandwich open-faced so the bread would not overwhelm the delicate yet flavorful meatballs. Actually, I would love to see them available in that other Italian classic as well: spaghetti and meatballs.
The meal was capped off with tiramisu (NIS 28) whose simple, informal presentation belied its excellence. You can make it look fancier, but ultimately it does not get much better than this.
Rocco’s is exactly what places like Sarona Market are meant to exist for: quick, reasonably priced and accessible food that is nevertheless outstanding. And for these specialties in particular, you would need a ticket to Italy or North America to get anything close to this experience.