Next came an offer to host the network’s Food(ography) series: 39 episodes over 1 1/2 years. Relating history, recognizing food’s significance, interviewing people on camera were all skills of Rocca’s that he put to good use. He got to know food celebrities but didn’t hang out with them.
“Paula Deen follows me on Twitter,” he says with conviction.
Rocca had pitched his idea for a show that featured older generations teaching the younger ones how to cook family dishes. With some Mo-mentum behind it, the second pitch got the green light once the Cooking Channel began airing more original programming.
The Sundays of Rocca’s youth were spent at his grandmother’s apartment, where great Italian meals came out of a tiny kitchen. Guilt, he claims, inspired My Grandmother’s Ravioli. He didn’t realize how good the gravy was until it was gone. But he has become savvy about what makes good television.
“He is who he is, on camera and off,” says Gideon Evans, executive producer at the Cooking Channel. “A complete original. A good conversationalist. We have similar sensibilities in that ‘MGR’ was supposed to be about bringing out characters, not a cooking show about ingredients.”
The end result has its charms, and its shtick: 20 minutes of Rocca engaging his host, making jokes at no one’s expense, taking instruction on how to extract the bite out of sliced onion, season jerk chicken or pronounce “kreplach.”
The day after our interview, he agreed to a Grandmother’s Ravioli-style session with Helene Mankowitz, a stylin’ 71-year-old retired makeup artist.
The dish du jour is chicken and egg noodles. It is close to her heart. Simple, one-pot comfort food. Her late mother learned to make it as a Romanian child transplanted to Pennsylvania Dutch country. Mankowitz has committed the recipe to memory, so she’s nervous about measuring this and that.
Within minutes, they have struck up a playfully antagonistic rapport. She teaches him how to chop celery. He looks for approval.
About an hour later, the pair has tasted from the pot and adjusted the seasoning. Rocca would push for more black pepper, but this is not his show. He praises the tenderness of the meat and the texture of the noodles and carrot coins; Mankowitz needs to get off her feet. The back-and-forthing has reached a more intimate, supportive level. It would warm the cockles of the toughest customer. It would make good television.