Baroque Italian on the banks

Zocca takes rustic and contemporary over the top

Release Date: 2009-08-19

From the street, the Westin Riverwalk impresses only by its size. The entrance is cramped and inelegant. The lobby does offer lovely river views, but the designers somehow felt that it was more important to emphasize the ascent to the ballrooms above than the route down to (or up from) the River Walk below — a priority many other riverfront hotels, the neighboring Contessa included, seem to have understood.  

The lack of an emphatic connection to the river is a special shame here, as this less-traveled stretch of the river is particularly appealing. Shame number two: The Westin has had a restaurant at river level from the beginning (when it had a quasi-Latin theme), but it has never inspired commentary. With the recent transformation of the space into Zocca, sporting an Italian menu at once traditionally rustic and cautiously contemporary, it is now not only safe to catch a casual lunchtime bite, I even recommend you return at night to test the kitchen’s more ambitious side.  

Assuming the temperature ever drops below 100 degrees again, there is no place more pleasant along the river for an al-fresco lunch. A perfectly balanced salad of “wild” arugula and orange segments with poached fennel, pistachios, and a black-olive vinaigrette was the perfect summertime starter. The calorie-conscious might pair the salad with a pizzetta and call it a day; the crackly flatbread, served with generous portions of fresh goat cheese, earthy roasted-eggplant purée, and rosemary-accented sea salt, makes for a very satisfactory companion. But why stop there? We tucked into tagliatelle al granchio and rigatoni porchetta al sugo and felt not the slightest twinge of remorse. 


THE SKINNY Rustic and contemporary
Italian collide creatively
at this River Walk restaurant.
The pastas are excellent as
are the desserts.

DON'T MISS The pappardelle Bolognese,
tagliatelleal granchio, and
the balsamic-blueberry sorbet

Well, maybe a twinge — at least with the crab dish. Creamy, buttery, and blessed with an abundance of the signature granchio, it was luxurious. In a vain attempt to take my mind off of the week’s worth of butterfat I was consuming, I decided a touch of cayenne couldn’t hurt — if for no other reason than the color would have been a good accent. My only regret about the rigatoni was that, at 90-degrees-plus on river’s edge, I couldn’t justify a light Chianti or Rioja. But the robust pasta, studded with large chunks of pork, roasted peppers, and green olives, fantastic alone, would be even better with a partner in wine. Maybe in October.   

Someone in the kitchen, whether Executive Chef Chip McMullin or Chef de Cuisine Jeffery Wiley, obviously has a good hand with pasta and sauces. The pappardelle Bolognese we sampled on a recent evening in the dining room was also outstanding, although as good as the classic Bolognese bianco was (no tomato, but lots of carrot), there was way too much of it, and it hurt to leave so much in the bottom of the bowl at pasta’s end.  

A tomato sauce and a garlic-shy aioli with tarragon — both very good, accompany the ubiquitous fried calamari — which were surpassingly tender but not otherwise distinguished. The excellent port-and-cherry sauce served with the antipasto duck meatballs outshone the tiny spheres; maybe if they were a little less diminutive we’d get more duck flavor.  

For another appetizer, we ordered the risotto cappesanta precisely because it sounded so ludicrously over-the-top: scallop (singular), tangerine risotto, strawberry balsamic, pistachio pesto. It arrived on a small, rectangular plate, the scallop sitting atop a spoonful of risotto with a daub of pesto and a smear of balsamic alongside. First, the size: at $12.95 this is by far the most expensive appetizer, and although the scallop was perfect and the pesto very good, more risotto would at least make the plate look like you were getting your money’s worth. Besides, the risotto’s good in its own right — the tangerine lends a slightly fruity acidity more than a big hit of citrus. 

Which does raise another point: knowing when to stop. The restaurant’s décor is relatively low-key, with alabaster-like accents and ersatz antique beams complementing colorful stone floors. Some of the main dishes, on the other hand, are positively baroque. Our tonno alle olive was generously olive-crusted, as advertised, and came perched atop a superfluity of stuff: napa cabbage, spicy capicola, grape tomatoes, and a “confit” of yellow peppers and Yukon potatoes. Somewhere, smoky paprika figured into the equation. All of this was good, mind you — especially the exquisite tuna. But I’m not sure we’d miss, say, the cabbage, if it wasn’t there. 

The same was true, to a lesser degree, with the anatra alle pesche. The duck breast, deftly seasoned and cooked to a perfect medium rare, couldn’t have been better, and chewy farro (the New York Times calls it a “sturdy” grain that stands up well to lusty ingredients) was an inspired accompaniment, tamed only a little by the few cubes of peach. What the cubed celery root was doing there, I couldn’t say; it’s a vegetable far more interesting in a classic French rémoulade. As for the passion-fruit prosecco sauce, it was so delicate we could hardly detect it, though I have a feeling it would be a player if it had more body. (So few kitchens in town are trying at this level, I haven’t had the occasion to stand on this soapbox for a while, but for what it’s worth, the following suggestion applies to creative restaurants in general: Take a look at the plate, then remove one thing.)  

Desserts do tend to soothe the savage soapbox orator, and Zocca’s accomplished just that. The whisper-light tiramisu, though it bears little resemblance to its written description, is perhaps the best in town, and the coffee ice cream that accompanies it could become utterly addictive. The sorbets have been produced locally by Da Vinci with chef input, and of the three sampled, the balsamic blueberry deserves to become a classic. Wine is another good bridge over ruffled waters, and the list does an especially good job of offering a selection of bottles under $40. Our Layer Cake Primitivo was almost dessert in itself, so dense it was with deep, berry flavors.

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