Service excels at Bocci

CorrespondentFebruary 15, 2008 

  • 5850 Fayetteville Road, in Sutton Station, Durham

    206-4067

    www.bocciitalian.com

    Cuisine: Italian

    Rating: **

    Prices: $$-$$$

    Atmosphere: casual, with a Tuscan flair

    Service: excellent

    Recommended: calamari, brick oven pizza, risotto di mare, veal saltimbocca

    Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

    Reservations: accepted for parties of 8 or more

    Other: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Diners Club; full bar (strong Italian wine list); smoke free (smoking permitted on the patio); accommodates children

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories:

    ***** Extraordinary.

    **** Excellent.

    *** Above average.

    ** Average.

    * Fair.

    For descriptions and reviews of more restaurants, use the searchable restaurant database at http://events.triangle.com/restaurants.

    Your take: Let us know about your experience at Bocci by responding at blogs.newsobserver.com/epicurean.

The first time I dined at Bocci, the waiter was exceptional in every respect: attentive without being intrusive, welcoming without being overbearing, knowledgeable about the menu and wine list. He recommended the Lagaria chardonnay, one of some two dozen by-the-glass options on Bocci's Italian-leaning list, correctly describing it as "crisp, but not as crisp as a Pinot Grigio." Later, when I asked for a glass of the Fratelli Ponte Barbera d'Asti, he knew that there was only one glass remaining and fetched it forthwith. Throughout the meal, pacing was perfect and the table cleared properly.

In short, service would have been impressive if Bocci were a fine dining establishment. But it isn't. It's a family-friendly Italian restaurant with a cozy Tuscan decor that's attractive enough but by no means fancy. In the Triangle, where first-rate servers are in notoriously short supply, such a level of service is practically unheard of in a casual restaurant. Nor was my first meal at Bocci a fluke. On a subsequent visit, a different server wasn't as polished, but still rated considerably above average.

If only the kitchen's performance consistently measured up to the high standards set in the dining room. As it is, the food is all over the map. At one end of the culinary landscape, your meal might start with some of the most tender, delicately crusted fried calamari around, served with a warm, bright house-made red sauce. At the other end, you might find yourself presented with seriously overcooked prosciutto-wrapped scallops. Occupying the middle ground of the appetizer offering are a satisfying if surprisingly tangy Italian wedding soup, and mussels in white wine, lemon and garlic which are merely average. Sausage-stuffed mushrooms would be stellar if their stuffing weren't mushy.

Brick oven pizzas have garnered a loyal following. Most of the time, they earn that loyalty with a thin crust that adroitly walks the tightrope between crisp and bready. Occasionally, however, the crust is dense and heavy, leading to suspicions of an overworked dough. Toppings can be variable, too, from the slabs of fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes and fresh basil of a classically executed pizza margherita to a pizza bianca whose flavor is overwhelmed by a heavy-handed sprinkling of dried oregano.

Chef Michele Rizzo's rendition of saltimbocca, which pairs exceptionally tender veal scaloppine with prosciutto, mozzarella, roasted red peppers and spinach, is a rewarding if unusual variation on the classic. Risotto di mare is a keeper, too, serving up a bounty of shrimp, scallops, calamari, mussels and clams over moist grains of risotto flecked with bits of tomato and caramelized garlic.

A mixed grill listed as Tre Amici, however, proved not to be so friendly to the palate when I sampled the dish. All three grilled items -- shrimp, chicken, even the miniature Italian sausages -- were overcooked. An otherwise delightful pappardelle fiorentina was likewise marred by overcooked chicken. Since both of these entrees were served on the same evening (my second visit), it's tempting to hazard a guess that the kitchen was having an off night. Indeed, everything was properly cooked the first time I dined at Bocci -- everything, that is, except for those prosciutto-wrapped scallops. Go figure.

Still, hits outnumber misses, and a few dishes -- notably, the calamari, saltimbocca and pizzas -- are signs of a kitchen that shows real promise. If Rizzo hasn't yet fully realized his potential, it isn't for lack of trying. With the backing of owner Bob Jewett, the chef has revised the menu a couple of times in the two years since Bocci opened.

A hands-on owner, Jewett can be found in the restaurant most nights. Chances are, he'll stop by your table to see how you're enjoying your meal -- and he'll actually listen to your answer. Next time he asks me, I'll tell him that the food is pretty good most of the time, occasionally excellent. And that if it were consistently as good as the service, Bocci would truly be one of the area's gems.

ggcox@bellsouth.net

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