For more than six years, Giovanni Rocchio served his elegant Italian dishes in a small, inconspicuous storefront on U.S. 1, the kind of spot that feels like a secret find. Never mind that there wasn’t enough parking or seating at the old Valentino’s Cucina Italiana. It was beloved.
So for some, the opening of the new Valentino’s six weeks ago was bittersweet. Success brings change.
Rocchio’s new restaurant is just six blocks north of the original but worlds apart. The chef spent more than $1 million transforming a former tire shop into a gleaming fine-dining destination just south of the tunnel. He can now seat nearly 100 instead of 55. There’s plenty of parking (mostly valet), and instead of waiting outside for a table, you can have a drink in the full bar. The decor is lovely, with soft colors, wood floors and gentle archways, a draw for an attractive crowd.
Some lament the higher prices and an end to the BYOB policy (there’s now an extensive wine list and a sommelier). And fans who felt like Rocchio was their personal chef now have to share him with new devotees who have been packing the place. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the chef’s intriguing, innovative cuisine, his fresh ingredients and attention to detail.
Rocchio keeps some items on the menu (like his heavenly butternut squash ravioli and grilled calamari) by popular demand, but he has a passion for surprising customers. And with a bigger, state-of-the-art kitchen, he and his larger crew of cooks can give rein to creativity with dishes like salmon cured in gin and juniper berries and one of our favorites, cool, refreshing melon soup crowned with a mound of peekytoe crab salad and a sprinkling of edible flowers.
Rocchio often invited outside chefs to cook with him at the old restaurant, and he’s continuing that practice here. On our recent visits, there was a list of eight dishes by Italian chef Enzo DiPasquale. Rocchio had tasted his cooking on a trip to Milan and was so impressed, he invited DiPasquale to spend a few weeks at Valentino’s.
DiPasquale’s dishes included a delicate baccala gnocchi, the saltiness of the dried cod offset by milk and a broth made from butter lettuce and shallots. Clams and mussels are mixed with gnocchi that seems to float — not an easy feat for potato dumplings. Nduja, a spicy sausage spread from Calabria, completes the dish.
Rocchio’s starter of calamari and artichoke tart is delicious, roasted in a cast-iron pan with a hint of garlic, a splash of lemon and a dusting of herbed bread crumbs. It emerges crispy on top, served with radicchio and frisée dressed in balsamic vinaigrette.
The array of fish and seafood includes not only the usual suspects, but also seared wahoo, roasted turbot and cuttlefish, which tastes a lot like squid. A simple dish of plump shrimp paired with Rocchio’s house-made fusilli pasta is elevated by a flavorful arugula pesto sauce.
The filet mignon is as buttery tender as you’d want from the expensive cut, topped with caramelized onions — almost an onion marmalade — wild mushrooms and a touch of fontina fonduta, an Italian version of fondue.
Desserts are all house-made and luscious, including some of the best tiramisu we’ve ever had, an incredible caramel mousse with a crème brûlée center and fun bomboloni — puffy Italian doughnuts paired with a creamy ricotta honey dip.
Valentino’s is still working out a few issues, like reservations, but our wait for a table led to a great evening. The hostess asked if we’d consider a communal table in the private wine room, and we enjoyed lots of wine and food with six friendly diners, bonding over the bomboloni.
Rocchio has converted the old Valentino’s space into a casual restaurant, Osteria Acqua & Farina (“water and flour”), serving pizza, pasta and paninis. So you can enjoy the best of both worlds — Rocchio style.