Because this site focuses on news, the businesses that have been around awhile—and that make this neighborhood special—don’t get the coverage they should. The photographs for the “Spotlight” series are by Claudine Williams, who specializes in business, personal branding, and glamour portraits. Originally from Philadelphia, she has made New York City her home for the past seven years with her husband and son.
If you know Roc restaurant, you undoubtedly know owner Rocco Cadolini. “This is my show,” he says. “The lights, the ambience, the music, the rush of the energy. People always say, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I feel good in here.'” He and his wife, Stacy, live in Tribeca with their daughters, Alessia and Sofia. As Stacy says, “Tribeca is a trio for us—home, work and school.”
How did you get started in the restaurant business?
Rocco: I started very young. My father was an accountant at the hospitality management school in Sorrento, Italy. My dad would bring home ice cream, so I wanted to know more about what he did for a living. The school had three areas: dining, reception, and kitchen. I chose dining because I loved food, and I didn’t want to be back in the kitchen. I was 14. In summer, the school arranged for you to work. I made 800,000 lire a month—now that would be almost $800 a month. At 16, I worked in Lugano, Switzerland, then I came back to Sorrento. At 17, I went to England to work for three months. Then I was stuck in Sorrento, but I was working as a maître d’ at weddings and first communions, staffing the events, and this was at a very young age. When I was 19, I had to spend a year in the army. In August of 1989, I left the army, and by October, I was in New York City.
Why New York City?
Rocco: My father had a friend living here who said I could come work for six months. Now it’s been almost 30 years! I was supposed to fly from Naples to Brussels to New York, but we ended up flying through Pisa, Brussels, and London. By the time I arrived, my father’s friend had no idea when I’d be coming, so I asked three guys traveling on my flight—they were like Italian IRS agents—if I could stay with them for a night. Times Square as very different in 1989! We went outside and we could see people staring at us. We looked like a piece of meat! The next day, my father’s friend picked me up, and I started working at Petaluma on the Upper East Side. Then I got a second job at Tiramisu. I paid $80 a week to live with a Spanish family in Jackson Heights—I would wake up with the kids staring at me. But I was making money. By the end of 1989, I was working lunch at Petaluma and dinner at Elio’s. I worked at Elio’s for 10 years. After seven or eight years, I grew anxious to open my own space. My friends said the best bet was to ask Elio [Guaitolini] if he’d partner with me. He agreed, and we started looking around the Upper East Side. But a broker took us down here and as soon as I arrived, I said there’s nowhere else to be. We signed the lease in 1999. It was a Chinese restaurant called Sea Wok. We opened on April 15, 2000.
Stacy: There were rusted bars on the windows, a fish tank in the corner…. It took some vision.
How did you two meet?
Stacy: In the 90s, when I was the head concierge at the Essex House, I used to called Rocco all the time to get guests into Elio’s. We talked on the phone for two years before we met!
When did you decide to open a restaurant in Brooklyn?
Rocco: In 2006, I opened Baci & Abbracci in Williamsburg with two employees who are also from Sorrento. And two years ago, because we go to Kentucky all the time, we bought a building in the Highlands part of Louisville. Roc Kentucky will open there soon.
You go to Kentucky all the time?
Stacy: My mom is a New Yorker, and I grew up in Manhasset, but my dad is from Louisville. Rocco and I would go to Kentucky every Thanksgiving. There’s a real dining scene in Louisville—it’s so creative, and the prices are the same, if not higher!
Rocco: The Highlands is an upcoming area.
Stacy: Rocco has the ability to see when a neighborhood is changing. Louisville is very artsy, which I like. Maybe Nashville will be next….
Rocco: In other cities, you have the possibility to buy the space.
Stacy: And there’s so much bureaucracy here now.
What is Roc known for?
Stacy: I think it’s the energy of the room. And Roc is authentic—with an Italian owner; Italian chef; an Italian interior designer, Marco De Luca; an Italian architect, Luigi Fiorentino.
Rocco: Of course we have great food and a great wine list, but Roc is probably known for Rocco. This is my show: the lights, the ambience, the music, the rush of the energy. People always say, “I don’t know what it is, but I feel good in here.” But I can’t be here all of the time, and people are disappointed when I’m not. In Kentucky, we’ll have the same energy, but we’ll put another face on it, with me in the background.
I’ve always assumed Roc is short for Rocco, or is your middle initial O?
Rocco: When you speak Neapolitan, you eat the words. So I’m not Rocco, I’m Roc. Also, there was already a restaurant called Rocco.
What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
Rocco: When I do the show.
Stacy: You’re making people happy. He wants to please everyone so much.
Rocco: For me, that’s the most satisfying. No matter if I’m in the saddest mood when I come in, it’s better when I’m done.
Last time I was here, I looked over and you were dancing by the end of the bar.
Rocco: That’s who Rocco is!
Most popular dish?
Rocco: Gnocchi alla sorrentina. And the cavatelli with broccoli rabe and sausage, because it was featured on Food Network. Rocco DiSpirito featured it on “Best Thing I Ever Ate.”
Most expensive dish?
Rocco: In season, white truffles—$120 for a bowl of fettuccine. Out of season, the veal chop for $47.
Least expensive dish?
Rocco: Either the mixed green salad for $10 or broccoli with oil and garlic for $7.
Your very favorite dish right now?
Rocco: Black pasta with half lobster.
Stacy: I like all the seafood.
Rocco: And you like the Stacy Salad!
Tribeca has obviously changed a lot. Any changes that have surprised you?
Rocco: How many high rises are right in front of me now. When I started, there were those two buildings in Battery Park City and IPN. Now we have 200 Chambers, 101 Warren… I used to sit upstairs in the sunlight. Not anymore!
Upstairs? You lived in the building?
Rocco: I lived upstairs the first couple of years. Elio said we couldn’t take the space unless we got the second floor, too. We used it for storage and an office, and I stayed there. We don’t have it anymore.
How has your business changed?
Rocco: When I first started, we used to get busy by 9 p.m. People who walked by earlier would think we were going out of business. Now we get busy at 6 p.m. and we’re quiet by 9 p.m. The neighborhood was different then—more singles, more couples.
What percentage of your business is local?
Rocco: Most of my business is residents. We’ve had years with a lot of outsiders, and on weekends we see more people from uptown or New Jersey.
Tell me a crazy customer story.
Rocco: At Elio’s, people will wait 45 minutes to an hour. This neighborhood, people don’t like to wait so much. When I started, I would try to get people to wait, and I disappointed people I would see later in the street. So I had to change the way I do reservations. Anyway, one night, this big guy from Texas was waiting for a while, he had a party of three. He comes up to me and says, “If you don’t give me a table, I will make a call and you will see what happens to you.” It was crazy! I didn’t answer. After they sat down, he came and apologized. Another time, a lady started to cry when she couldn’t have a table right away. I found out later that she was pregnant, and once my wife was pregnant, I learned what that meant. But at the time, I couldn’t believe it was for real.
Where do you eat/drink/shop around here?
Stacy: Our first date was at Flor de Sol on Greenwich Street. We celebrated our first wedding anniversary at Bouley, our favorite French restaurant. And we were frequent customers at the Bubble Lounge! Such a fabulous champagne bar! Duane Park Patisserie is our go to place for the “magic cupcake” and amazing cakes and baked goods. I’m so happy that Giorgia has opened on Greenwich—I’ve known Marina for 20 years, and she is an expert on lingerie and correct fittings. Also, we are good friends with Andrea Schnipper. Schnippers is a wonderful, high-quality casual place to dine with the family.
What does the future hold for Roc?
Rocco: Did you hear about Da Silvano? Why would someone who makes so much money close? They’re tired, that’s why. I’m still enthusiastic. But the days of the big expense accounts are over, the rent is insane, the bureaucracy and the minimum wage make it tougher and tougher, and you have Seamless and OpenTable taking a cut. The only way to grow the business is to add tables or charge more. In two years, I think we’ll see 25% of mom-and-pop businesses around here closed.
At least you have Kentucky.
Rocco: With an Italian owner, an Italian chef…. It’s almost done! Let me show you photos!
Previously in this series:
••• Estancia 460
••• Boomerang Toys
••• Antiqueria Tribeca
••• Real Pilates
••• Church Street School for Music and Art
••• Kings Pharmacy
••• Church Street Surplus
••• New York Nautical
••• Lance Lappin Salon
••• Joseph Carini Carpets
••• A Uno
••• Balloon Saloon
••• Fountain Pen Hospital
••• Chambers Pottery
••• Square Diner
••• Langdon Florist
••• Tribeca Upholstery & Draperies
••• Double Knot
••• Philip Williams Posters