A friend and I walked into Rocco's Cafe recently for a weekday lunch; we were greeted by the hostess and immediately seated under a wall joyously festooned with Italian-American kitsch, including photos of former Mayor Joe Alioto and Frank Sinatra. The place was moderately busy, and there were at least four servers on duty, although at any given moment they tended to be clumped together at the bar, whispering.
It was a warm day, and I was thirsty as well as hungry. I asked a busser who was cleaning up the next table if I might have a glass of water, and she, with the pleasantly vague manner of a nurse in a crowded waiting room, told me our server would be around momentarily. I nodded and glanced toward the clump of waiters, trying to catch an eye. But while they seemed to notice me, they continued talking among themselves.
Another server passed within earshot, and I asked her for water, bread, service. It'll be just a moment, she assured me, and hurried off. After several more minutes I was ready to leave -- you simply don't leave customers at a table for 10 minutes without bread or menus or water; under the terms of the Geneva Convention, even prisoners of war are supposed to receive better treatment -- when our waiter finally appeared, with a perfunctory apology and a basket of bread. Water soon followed; our orders were taken; we stayed.
"It does seem like the sort of place where you get good service if they know you," my friend said.
"And bad service if they don't," I said. Since the staff didn't know us, we were apparently doomed.
A cup of pastina ($1.95) failed to revive my optimism. In a pallid, undersalted chicken broth floated a sorry collection of pasta pebbles. I've had better soup from cans. Still, it was something to dunk the bread in while we waited.
My friend got into the Italian-American mood of the place, and his Italian-sausage sandwich ($6.50), with grilled peppers and onions, was the sort of dish that has made Italian food so popular in America. The sausage, in particular, had just enough fennel for licorice breath and just enough hot pepper to leave a tingle on the tongue. The baguette was also tender: a sign of freshness.
Roast turkey breast with mashed potatoes ($8.25) was one of the day's specials, though it didn't seem to have much to do with Rocco's main culinary theme, nor with the warm late-summer weather. For a daily special, it wasn't anything to shout about, but it wasn't bad, either: turkey slightly rubbery but not dry; mashed potatoes a bit lumpy, but tasty, and plenty of gravy.
"I didn't even ask you if you wanted dessert!" our server said brightly as she presented the check. We did want dessert. But we wanted to get out even more.
Lunch at Rocco's was so bad that I nearly gave up on the place, but at dinner several evenings later our reluctance quickly gave way to the quiet pleasure of being in a restaurant where the waitstaff know what they're doing and the kitchen believes in its food. We were seated promptly and handed menus by the hostess. Bread and water arrived at once, along with a server who explained the specials (which were also posted in neon colors on a chalkboard above the bar).
One of them, cheese-pesto ravioli ($5.25) appealed to the Boss, while I, despite the disastrous pastina, dared to order soup -- minestrone this time ($2.50). This turned out to be as good as the pastina was awful -- an artful combination of beans, summer vegetables, and pasta in a thickened broth that made the whole thing seem luxurious. The four pillows of ravioli, meanwhile, swam in a cheesy sauce we were gobbling up with our soup spoons.
I am always curious to see how restaurants cook pork: Will they allow a hint of pink? At Rocco's Cafe, the answer was no; they played it safe. Garlic rosemary roast pork ($9.50) consisted of several fat slices of roasted pork loin, thoroughly cooked to a stern beige-gray, though not ruined, and nicely scented with the seasonings. The gnocchi with meat sauce on the side (an extra $1) could have been a meal itself in a pinch.
The Boss dove bravely into the prawns Gambaroni over linguine ($11.95) -- sauteed shrimp on a bed of garlicky pasta -- but gave up halfway through. The oval-shaped plate was the size of a loaf of bread, and the prawns and pasta filled it completely.
By this time we were feeling considerably more mellow about Rocco's. The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch every day, but because dinner can be had only Thursday and Friday nights, the staff seem to treat both menu and customers a little more lovingly. This time our server asked us about dessert before presenting the check, and we agreed to split a piece of the Oreo-crust cheesecake ($3.25), made by the owner's mother. As with so many dishes of maternal origin, the cheesecake was gravely caloric, and the two of us together couldn't finish it, though we did finish the cookie crust. At length our server took pity on us and removed the remaining chunks and bits without a word of reproof.
I left Rocco's feeling that the restaurant was schizophrenic; I'd never risk another lunch, yet for a certain sort of Americanized Italian dinnertime cooking, the place delivered real gustatory satisfaction and swift service. When the staffs at restaurant after restaurant are on their toes, it's easy to be lulled into a sense of complacency. Perhaps that's what's happened at Rocco's Cafe, where the serving staff obviously know what to do but don't always do it.
Rocco's Cafe, at 1131 Folsom, opens every day at 7 a.m. Breakfast and lunch are served until 3 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and until 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. On Thursday and Friday the restaurant is open for dinner until 10 p.m. Call 554-0522.