Walking into Bocca was like a dream come true for this former Latin Club president (two years in a row, no less!), with décor that evokes the spirit of Ancient Rome. Doubling both as a wine and cocktail bar as well as a full-service restaurant, Bocca is an ideal spot for groups ready for a night on the town as well as couples looking for a romantically-lit dinner with some truly wonderful food at the center of it.
At the restaurant’s entrance is a replica of the Roman bocca della verita, or “mouth of truth,” a stunning wall sculpture of a bearded face with mouth agape. The mouth of truth was long viewed as a lie detector, the belief being that if someone told a lie with their hand in the mouth, it would be bitten off. The manager informed us that sometimes monks would hide scorpions inside the mouth to add extra tension. Regardless of the mouth’s efficacy as a polygraph, it is definitely a sight to see.
For cocktails, Alexa had a very peachy (literally!) white sangria, while I had the basil vodka gimlet, a welcome variation on one of my favorite drinks. It is easy to see how it is their best-seller. With appetizers, we started we a plate of spicy soppressata and tart gorgonzola, garnished with walnuts drizzled with honey and fig paste. The platter paired nicely with their prosecco. We also enjoyed a dual appetizer of tuna, starting with tuna tartare. Served in the raw, the tuna tartare was served with lemon-infused olive oil, asparagus, and capers on the side. The salty and tangy accompaniments served as a nice contrast to the bold tuna flavor. The other tuna dish was pan-seared, served atop a savory puree of smoked eggplant caponata.
From Bocca’s hot appetizer menu, we had two delicious dishes. The first is a personal favorite of mine, duck liver pate, served with fig marmalade on crostini bread. It was a great pairing of sweet figs with savory pate, practically a meal in itself. The second was a new taste experience for both Alexa and me: animelle e carciofi al limone, sweetbreads served with artichoke and preserved lemon. While Alexa didn’t like the texture – slightly creamy – I found it interesting, certainly an item that falls under the “acquired taste” category. When we do these reviews (in this case, as guests of the restaurant), we always ask for a broad-ranging tasting menu, always adding that we are adventurous eaters and will try anything. Although it may be best to not inquire as to what parts of the animal make up sweetbreads, I fully endorse Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmer’s episode-closing tag: “If it looks good, eat it!”
For our entrees, we split orders of ravioli di coda alla vaccinara and salmon con fregola e yogurt. The ravioli was stuffed with oxtail, a meat not frequently at the center of Italian cooking. However, it is delicious, a tender, succulent meat frequently found in Caribbean cuisine; it made for an ideal stuffing in the al dente pasta, which was topped with peas and porcini mushrooms with a heavy mascarpone cream sauce. This entrée paired excellently with their pinot noir. The salmon was also great, served with fregola, a pasta from Sardinia (an Italian island west of the Italian mainland, just south of Corsica) that is similar to Israeli couscous, with a minty yogurt sauce; this dish was a welcome facet of Italian cuisine that embraces the foods of other Mediterranean cultures.
Our meal ended with two desserts. The first was a palate-cleansing panna cotta, a sweet cream with coconut flakes and topped with spiced pineapple chunks and a delightfully tart passion fruit puree. The second was cioccolato, a heavy brownie topped with chocolate mousse and served with a scoop of stracciatella gelato.
We left satisfied; full, but not overstuffed. The food was an elegant trip through some atypical Italian dishes, accompanied with some wonderful beverages and topped off with two incredible traditional desserts. The romantic vibe in the place is hard to miss, but just three tables over were a group of people around our age enjoy round after round of drinks. We can’t wait to go back – with friends in tow!
39 East 19th Street
Photos by Alexa Altman