LA ROCCA'S RESTAURANT & PIZZERIA
The mom-and-pop pizza parlor, which opened April 4 in the middle of Williamson Street, does the kind of old-school Italian cooking that has recently taken a back seat to the more fashionable "Tuscan" this and "Tuscany" that. (Although I should note that the 3-year-old Griglia Tuscany in Middleton recently closed.)
Vito La Rocca, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Caterina, told me last December that he was born and raised in Sicily and ran a restaurant in Italy for nine years. For the past three years the couple had a part-time carryout and delivery business of the same name in the village of Brooklyn.
The pizza is the star here, baked in a formidable pizza oven. The crust is everything a good pizza crust should be, soft on top, crispy underneath. Ingredients aren't piled on too thick, so the pizza sauce is able to make a contribution.
The restaurant has five combination pizzas, including its namesake with sausage, ham, mushroom, and black olives topped with a four-cheese blend. Almost as good is the Quattro Gusti with artichoke hearts instead of olives and tomatoes instead of sausage.
If you choose to build your own pizza, La Rocca's has nearly 30 toppings, including a few unusual ones you don't ordinarily see like tuna, blue cheese, and beef prosciutto, known in Italy as Bresaola. Pizzas come in four sizes, 10 to 16 inches, and the combination pizzas range in price from $11 to $17.
La Rocca's also offers thick crust, pan style and stuffed pizzas, although those options are not emphasized on the menu. The stuffed pizza is worth seeking out because there are so few outlets for deep dish pizza in Madison.
Mussel and clam fans may want to seek out the Fettuccine alla Vito ($12), with a white wine sauce that is neither too rich nor too salty. Cayenne pepper gives it a nice bite.
My companion appreciated the Veggie Chef Salad ($5) more than I did. It had a fresh mix of gourmet lettuces, along with mushroom, tomato, red onion, green olives, banana peppers, and blue cheese. The vinaigrette was rather acidic for my taste.
He was also more enthusiastic about the Arancina ($3), a breaded and deep fried rice ball we ordered as a starter. There are two versions, and ours held spinach, mozzarella, and Parmesan.
The square dining room -- a former used appliance store next to Heartland Credit Union -- isn't much to look at, but the gregarious and engaging Caterina La Rocca goes a long way to brighten the place up. On two recent weekend visits nearly every seat was taken, and Vito could be seen working furiously in the kitchen.
The La Roccas seem right at home on Willy Street, and the neighborhood has quickly embraced them, too. ■
Aside from the obvious -- pizza joints, old buildings, and Willy Street -- they have very different personalities.
Roman Candle makes exuberant use of recycled materials and seems very much a product of the Marquette neighborhood.
La Rocca is old-school Italian, owned by a native of Sicily, Vito La Rocca, who with his wife Caterina remade a former used appliance store.
The couple brightened the place with faux red brick wainscoting, orange stucco-look drywall and a shiny gray linoleum floor, and has more charm than that description might imply. The La Roccas previously had a takeout and delivery business in Brooklyn.
La Rocca's has several types of pizza: medium crust, thick crust, pan style, and stuffed pizza.
Diners can build their own pies with 30 toppings, some as far-fetched as tuna, pineapple, and jalapeņo peppers, and five medium crust combination pizzas are on the menu. The restaurant's massive pizza oven turns out very good crust, crisp and pliant at the same time.
"The Great" pizza has a lively sauce, lots of good quality cheese, sausage, finely sliced mushrooms, green peppers, onions, black olives, and bacon. A medium pizza is more than two adults can comfortably eat.
A daily special, calzones stuffed with artichokes, spinach and mozzarella, also benefited from the good crusts and good marinara sauce.
One of the prettier dishes on the menu is the Veggie Rollé, with tri-colored pasta rolled with ricotta and finely minced vegetables, and half of it topped with a light Alfredo sauce and the other half with marinara.
One of the pasta entrées is Fettuccine alla Vito. It was teeming with fresh mussels, clams, and shrimp, and tossed with a light white wine sauce with garlic and parsley and just enough cayenne to make the combination spring to life without camouflaging the seafood.
The seafood was just slightly overcooked, but when the brine mixed with the sauce and noodles, it was delicious.
La Rocca's salads are generous, fresh and inexpensive, though dressings tend to be acidic and applied to excess.
Of the desserts, the tiramisu looked and tasted mass-produced, though it wasn't bad. The cannoli, no matter how it was made, was classic and enjoyable, with a crispy cookie cone texture and a smooth custard, not too sweet, flecked with chocolate chips. Spumoni and homemade cheesecake is also available. ■
La Rocca's Restaurant & Pizzeria
971 Janesville Street, Oregon WI 53575
Phone: (608) 291-0522
MON - TUE - WED: 4:30 to 10:00 pm
THU: 11:00 am to 2:00 pm | 4:30 to 10:00 pm
FRI - SAT: 11:00am to 2:00 pm | 4:30 to 10:30 pm