With a history of predictably delicious Italian food — plus some of the best people watching in town — Rocky’s remains a Rochester classic.
“You’ve never eaten here before?!”
The question, which was posed by a waitress at Rocky’s, is perhaps not as gruff as it sounds. It is more incredulous than anything else.
After all, virtually every other table at the Italian-food fixture on Jay Street is filled with people whose first time had occurred many, many years earlier. More than one conversation crosses over from one table to another, ricocheting off the stamped-tin ceiling. Are these large parties that had to be broken up? Total strangers bonding over the Buffalo Bills? Or fellow regulars who long ago learned to do without the laminated menus?
Joseph Mastrella, who bought the place from his mother and four aunts in 2011, says the clientele is as unpredictable in terms of demographic as it is predictable in frequency. “We get garbagemen and we get Tom Golisano,” he says. “Tom loves the tripe.”
Tom is not alone: Tripe has been a fixture on the menu at Rocky’s since Joseph and Louise Mastrella, the current Joseph’s grandparents, opened the restaurant in the Brown Square neighborhood in 1949. They named it after their son, Rocco, who was known by everyone as Rocky. “We alternate between Rocky and Joseph in our family,” says the younger Joseph, 56, who naturally named his son Rocco.
Both Rockys still work at the restaurant, as does Joseph’s mother, daughter and other relatives. That incredulous waitress? One of the aunts from whom he bought the place.
“We’ve got one dishwasher who’s a friend of my son’s, but I try to keep my hires within the family,” he says. “The problem is that I’m running out of family!”
He can also run out of food, which stems from a voracious lunchtime crowd (dinner is only served on Fridays) and a kitchen roughly the size of the free-throw rectangle on a basketball court. Tripe is one of the few dishes offered every day, with the left half of the menu given over to a rotation of rigatoni, spaghetti, stuffed shells, and other Italian mainstays. Nearly all of it is steeped in a lightly simmered sauce familiar to the Mastrellas’ origins in the Abruzzi region of Italy.
Joseph, who waited tables in other Rochester restaurants for 35 years while also working six days a week at Rocky’s, has seen the occasional modification to the original recipes — but these tweaks don’t last long. “We do the same recipes that we’ve done from the beginning,” he says.
His customers, some of whom are themselves in the fourth generation of Rocky’s-attending family members, wouldn’t have it any other way. “If you’re not nice to the customers, they don’t come back,” he says. “The neighborhood was different when my grandparents opened it, and this is a neighborhood joint. But people still drive in from all over.”
And the fan base is hardly confined to the older set. On her way out, clutching a Styrofoam container with a smiley face written on it, a girl of about 4 actually yells goodbye to her waitress. She has eaten there before — and she undoubtedly will again.