Editor's note: Devra First is the Globe's new restaurant critic. This is her debut review.
A green light means "go." Red means "stop." And apparently red slowly morphing to pink, purple, then blue means "eat seafood." When North End restaurant Mare opened two years ago, it got as much attention for its LED display as it did for its BBQ octopus. Sushi-Teq in the InterContinental hotel followed suit, installing walls that change colors. And spot-of-the-moment Rocca Kitchen & Bar brings the trend to the South End, serving the cuisine of coastal Liguria under a curvy, shade-shifting light strip set into the ceiling.
At Rocca, though, the design element seems more emblematic than arbitrary. An undulating shape that suggests a river or a map of Liguria itself, the fixture is simultaneously organic and glitzy; the same could be said for Rocca. On one hand, the restaurant serves straightforward regional dishes -- handmade trofie with pesto, the fish stew called buridda -- for relatively short money (the entrees top out at $24). On the other, the restaurant, always buzzing, is filled with people who look like extras from either "Ally McBeal" or "The Sopranos." They're glossy; the food's not.
Take, for example, the trofie. A bowl of pasta with pesto, it looks simple, like something you might whip up yourself after a late night at work, with an assist from Barilla. But the trofie, unattractive tadpoles of dough, are hand-rolled and as chewy as Trident, assertively al dente whether you like it or not. Very fresh and pleasingly coarse, the pesto elevates the basil over other ingredients. It's made traditionally, with a mortar and pestle, according to Michela Larson, who co-owns Rocca with Gary Sullivan and Karen Haskell. (Tom Fosnot, formerly of blu, is the chef.)
The capellini is simple too, adorned with tiny, tender clams still in their purple-lipped shells. The taste is clean: garlic, parsley, and the sea. Every ingredient is essential; any additional ingredient would muck it up.
And when Rocca tries to get fancier, mucking often ensues. Panzotti, triangular dumplings filled with ricotta, struggle in a walnut sauce that tastes one-dimensional, like wet cardboard. The dour dish begs for a note of brightness. Veal involtini, meat roll-ups stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto, are dry, the meat lacking flavor. (The accompanying tomato sauce, however, tastes like pureed summer.)
Veal also appears in an appetizer of crispy medallions. As appealing as these sound -- mmm, crunchy little meat prizes -- they're tasteless and chewy. Grilled leg of lamb is overdone at the ends while still bleating in the center, and in desperate need of salt.
Meat seems to be a stumbling block; vegetables fare better. Tastes of wild mushroom toasts and a pizzetta with tomatoes, chopped olives, and anchovies, an appetizer of chickpea flatbread with caramelized onions called farinata, and gnocchi with seasonal vegetables all do right by produce. Our gnocchi comes in a pool of what looks like congealing melted butter but is actually corn sauce -- again, pureed summer.
But seafood is Rocca's strongest suit -- this is the cooking of the Italian Riviera, after all. The bouillabaisse-like buridda is zippy with garlic and features clams and head-on shrimp, with little toasts tucked in, sopping up the broth. And the roasted whole fish competes with the capellini to be the best thing on the menu. It's a beauty, head on in its skillet, surrounded by little branches of herbs, slices of broth-infused potato, lemon rounds, pine nuts, and olives. The ocean flavor of the fish plays well with the earthy potatoes, salty olives, and eye-opening lemon (those poor panzotti gaze longingly at the citrus from across the table).
In other words, Rocca is uneven, from the salting of the food (too much in some dishes, too little in others) to the service. Sometimes the latter is charmingly casual. But sometimes it's bumbling -- a waitress hounds us for our orders with each new course, then takes forever to deliver them; another says "excellent choice," beaming meaningfully, after everything we ask for. One Thursday we call for reservations and are offered 6 or 10 p.m. Too early and too late. Good thing OpenTable.com lets us book for 8 p.m.
Even the design of the restaurant is on-again, off-again. A horseshoe bar, cork walls, separate levels for drinking/nibbling and dining, and an extremely pleasant patio all work. But the rooms feel overthought, with browns, tans, blues, and different patterns so complementary the effect is hotel-bland. In case you forgot Liguria was by the sea, there's another lit-up ceiling wave, this one steadily blue, over the downstairs bar.
But these inconsistencies pale in the face of Rocca's secret weapon: The restaurant has a parking lot. It is big. You can put your car in it. In the South End, do not underestimate the power of the lot. Barring outright badness, this convenience ensures Rocca's success. Good cocktails don't hurt, either -- the Ligurian lemonade is a standout, and the Negroni is plenty slurpable. And Rocca is fun; it has energy (and for dessert a giant sundae with a classy name, Pacciugo di Portofino, that makes adults feel OK about ordering it). People were excited for it to open; now they are excited to be here. More than the food, that's what now makes it a bright light in Boston's sometimes subdued restaurant scene. It will be interesting to see, over time, what hues that light turns.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org