Fresh mussels and hand rolled Sicilian arancini parmesan balls sizzle in a fragrant Pomodoro sauce. Full bodied Italian Chianti pairs with bone in veal chops and melt in your mouth Osso Bucco; sipping and savouring on a sun soaked patio.
No, you are not resting on a terrace overlooking the rolling hills of southwest Italy; these timeless Italian classics are being served in the high-end yet home style dining room of Johnny Rocco’s Italian Grill – a principle in Niagara’s dining scene and one whose food could give Nonna a run for her money.
Johnny Rocco’s is a modern twist on the classic family-friendly Italian restaurant – and this long standing Niagara restaurant is dedicated. Dedicated to not only serving classically slow cooked dishes with made in house ingredients, but as well offering a consistency across their multiple location franchise that is rarely found outside of big box chain restaurant.
New to Johnny Rocco’s is Chef Joshua Davis. This latest addition to the Johnny Rocco’s kitchen family has taken the restaurant by storm; elevating the high traffic restaurant’s classic dishes with techniques refined in a number of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s most revered fine dining establishments.
Davis’ background is diverse; his extensive portfolio of work includes a young apprenticeship in the famous Oban Inn and training under world tiered chefs in the kitchens of Pillar and Post, Queens Landing and Prince of Wales – to name only a few.
By 18 years of age Davis was named a chef de partie at the European-styled Shaw Café and Wine Bar running the food line on a day-to-day basis and serving hundreds upon hundreds of people at the busy establishment.
“I went from bar cooking to fine dining very quickly,” says Davis. “[The Kitchens] were all led by lots of knowledgeable chefs – they would bring people in from other countries to show their skills – so I was learning so much stuff and technique.”
Davis later attended Humber College for Business Marketing – with the intentions of switching careers – but quickly found himself back in the excitement of the kitchen post-graduation as he took on a position at Montana’s BBQ and Bar.
Though Davis said there isn’t a strong focus on cooking and culinary in the chain restaurants, he learned valuable managing skills, supervising and food costs, portion control and systems that have aided him since.
When a position at Johnny Rocco’s was brought to his attention, Davis said he knew that it was the right move. Now, Johnny Rocco’s open concept kitchen is his new home and Italian is his new style.
“I have done it all,” said Davis. “But this is the first truly Italian restaurant I have worked in and I like it just fine. We are a very, very busy restaurant and that is my skill set.”
“And in my 32 years I have never eaten as much pasta as I have in the last eight months.”
And though Davis said his own personal style of cooking is much heavier than the fresh and uncomplicated techniques of Italian cuisine, Davis said both his and Italian styles of cooking have major components in common; a dedication to fresh ingredients, bold flavours and a love for fresh, crusty bread which has set him right at home in the fast paced eatery
“The most important thing I have learned about Italian cooking is simplicity,” said Davis. “It has to taste good. When I cook at home, I open the fridge and I start tossing things in the pan. It gets convoluted and very rich and sauce heavy. In Italian cooking, you need to try and keep it simple; a tomato sauce is nothing but tomatoes, olive oil and basil and if you deviate from it, people get upset.”
Davis said this dedication to classic cooking is law in the Johnny Rocco’s kitchen. All menu items and weekly features are crafted from fresh, local ingredients and pastas, sauces and marinades that are made fresh in house. Davis said flash frozen and pre-packaged do not hold a place in their kitchen.
“I make six big batches of Pomodoro from scratch a day and three big batches of alfredo a week,” said Davis. “The vast majority of our pastas are made in house – including our own pappardelle pasta. These are family recipes that are crafted by the owners and management or have been passed down by their families.”
Included in these recipes are family heirlooms passed down from generation – including Johnny Rocco’s famous rice balls that is the owner’s own grandmother’s recipe that he personally took and brought into the restaurant for the chefs to recreate and master.
These are all vital in creating consistent dishes for their dedicated and loyal customers who continue to fill their two restaurants on a weekly basis and host large-scale parties in the St. Catharines’ location’s banquet hall.
“I think a lot of people think, because of the consistency of our food and because it is always the same, people assume it is prepackaged and it is definitely not,” said Davis. “It is not. It is about very precise recipes and people following them exactly.
“All of our dishes are the same because we care about the food,” said Davis. “And we work really hard at it. You come to the Falls [location] and have the chicken parm and it is great; next week you come to the St. Catharines location and have the same chicken parm it is going to taste exactly the same.”
And though the menu consists heavily of both family and customer favourites and the chefs are not to deviate from the recipes guidelines, the kitchen is given the opportunity to experiment and be creative with weekly features and limited time offers that give adventurous customers a taste of something new; utilizing local meats and produce to elevate classic Italian dishes.
“The features give us the opportunity to elevate the food and be a little creative and teach our cooks new things,” said Davis. “We also have limited offer menus and seasonal dishes three to four times a year which switch things up for the regulars and the kitchen.”
Popular features and limited time menus since Davis’ tenure began have included twists on the classic Pappardelle carbonara, beef cheek ragu and a Zuppa di Pesce filled with fresh calamari, mussels and fish.
Davis also encourages his staff to enjoy their time in the kitchen. A music lover himself, David said when possible the kitchen is filled with music and conversation.
“You can’t stop me from singing,” said Davis. “Whatever is on the radio; I listen to music in the kitchen before we open, while we are prepping and then the last hour of service when my guys are winding down.
“I encourage my guys to sing during that hour of music – it keeps spirits light,” said Davis. “We have a clean kitchen, we have a happy kitchen; and this means the food is the highest quality.”
Interested in learning more about Italian cuisine in Niagara? Check out our article on La Scala – here