The Watcher - Waiting for Rocco

A visit to NBC's The Restaurant

The second season of NBC's reality series "The Restaurant" was a total bust, wasn't it?

The first season gripped a national audience as chef Rocco DiSpirito raced to build a restaurant in a mere six weeks. Despite construction delays, staff drama, kitchen snafus and the occasional fire, the eatery opened on time and tables filled quickly. But food arrived cold and poor service plagued the eatery throughout the second season, which restaurant financier Jeffrey Chodorow blamed on DiSpirito's constant absence from the kitchen. NBC hyped the second season as a battle for control of Rocco's 22nd Street, but when the show ended June 5, both men still held equal stakes in the business. Unable to accept such an unsatisfying ending, we went to investigate the made-for-TV eatery for ourselves.

Once named "America's Most Exciting Young Chef" by Gourmet magazine, DiSpirito is still chef at the critically acclaimed Union Pacific, but his televised second restaurant launched him to celebrity chef status. He created Rocco's 22nd Street as a sentimental tribute to his family's Italian-American cooking, complete with his mother, Nicolina "Mamma" DiSpirito, serving as executive chef. While Mamma diligently hand-rolls her meatballs everyday, her son seems to spend more of his time promoting his new cookbook, Flavor, and his new line of cookware than cooking in either of his restaurants.

The yellow awning outside the restaurant still reads "Rocco's 22nd," our first clue that DiSpirito maintains some influence in the business, if only in name. The decor walks a fine line between cheeky and tacky. The dark wood fixtures tone down the waitstaff's Italian-flag-colored uniforms, and a beaded mural of Naples covers the entire back wall.

The place is crowded for a Wednesday, but our reservation is ready on time. Tiny, orthopedic Mamma glad-hands customers, and bartender Matt mixes drinks. We don't recognize anyone else from the show, but the whole staff exudes ready-for-TV attractiveness. Our waiter sports strategically flat-ironed hair for that effortless messy look and flashes the whitest, straightest smile since Barbie.

Our waiter isn't much on conversation, but he suggests we order two servings of Mamma's Meatballs, since each order contains only three meatballs. We agree, even though one order costs $8, or roughly $2.67 per meatball. They look delectable until a slice of a fork releases the unfortunately familiar smell of canned dog food. Despite the odor, they have a deliciously fluffy texture with a mild spicy bite. But what is that smell?

The $10 Caesar salad lacks any cheese whatsoever, and only a scant amount of bacon bits tops the $16 spaghetti carbonara. It appears Rocco is pinching pennies, and yet, according to Chodorow, the restaurant's still not making money. The $28 steak pizzaola arrives undercooked and drowned in a sauce that tastes like Chef Boyardee with a lot of black pepper. But the $21 chicken-under-a-brick quickly becomes the table favorite for its juicy, rosemary-perfumed meat and crispy skin.

In fact, the chicken dish is the only plate we clean off enough to see that it features a huge, ornate "R." During season two, Chodorow interviewed several possible Rocco replacements and one of his favorites started with "R" — he saw that as an advantage since they wouldn't have to replace the plates.

The well-made desserts salvage the evening. The tiramisu is traditional, but the creative gelato combinations, such as vanilla gelato in a shot of amaretto, offer much needed relief from the outside heat. As our evening wraps up, we ask our waiter if Rocco is here. "No," he says. Is he still involved in the restaurant? "I think so," he says. Are you coached on what to say when customers ask for Rocco? "No." Have you ever thought about making up stories?

For the first time, our waiter's eyes light up. "Next time I'm going to say that Rocco has been shot!"