Heirloom Caprese Salad “The Mozzarella Cart” at Rocca, finished product.
Okay, let’s just clear this up right away. I’ve spent about two years of my life in Italy. I have visited numerous Caseifici or farms where fresh mozzarella, often mozzarella di bufala (buffalo mozzarella) from water buffalo that graze in the fields, mostly in Campania, south of Naples near Paestum and Battipaglia, so I know a thing or two about mozzarella, and have seen it prepared and presented numerous ways for the ubiquitous Southern Italian charmer, the Caprese Salad, which in its simplest form includes the freshest mozzarella, made that day, fresh tomatoes, and fresh basil, sprinkled with some sea salt, a drizzle of olive oil, and possibly some vinegar. That being said, I have enjoyed many outstanding versions made with exquisitely fresh, flavorful cheese, amazing tomatoes, great olive oil, piquant, vibrant basil, I didn’t think this salad could get much better than sitting on a terrace in Capri overlooking the azure sea, listening to the Gabbiani (seagulls) squawk, while sipping a local white wine under the Mediterranean sun, but Rocca Tampa, to my delight, has raised the bar on the Caprese Salad, taking it to new levels!
Start with skilled servers who are obviously well trained. Add in several carts manned by these skilled servers, turned mozzarella makers to stroll the dining room with their carts, which contain fresh cheese curds, sea salt, heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, kettles of hot water (180F), mixing bowls, estate olive oil, and balsamic.
The menu at Rocca isn’t large, but it delivers. A lot of thought went into each item, and into the flawless execution. The Caprese Salad appetizer, at a cool $32 is a show unto itself, and nearly every table in the restaurant orders it (it’s meant to be shared, one can easily feed 3-4 guests as a starter course).
Watching the magic show make its way around the dining room, one can’t help but watch and want to indulge. Each mozzarella maestro has been trained to make the fresh cheese before your eyes, a process that takes about 10-12 minutes, then assemble a gorgeous heirloom Caprese Salad by carefully arranging colorful sliced heirloom tomatoes with sliced, still warm, unctuous, oozing goodness fresh mozzarella on a large platter!
First, the maestro pours 180F water into the bowl with the curds and sea salt. This softens the curds and he begins to mix by hand, as the consistency becomes gummy. After several minutes, the fun begins, the mozzarella becomes elastic, and our maestro begins scooping and forming and stretching it and re-forming it again and again. It becomes more elastic, before long, the cheese that was once a bunch of curds is now stretching to 3 or more feet in length, longer than fresh lasagna sheets out of a pasta machine, over and over as the cheese is further developed, stretching from one hand to the other and folding it back over, watching is the epicurean equivalent of observing a private table side violin solo, dedicated just to you and your guests!
The magic continues as the long stretched out cheese gets pulled literally into a ball as it is shaped by the maestro (they are wearing heavy duty rubber gloves for sanitary purposes, plus the cheese is piping hot as it was molded in hot water).
Voila, there you have it! Culinary magic, and officially the best Caprese Salad I’ve ever experienced, literally from start to finish!
Rocca offers warm and welcoming hospitality paired with views of the Tampa skyline in an elegant setting in The Heights District. Chef Bryce Bonsack’s handmade pasta-focused menu features Italian fare using seasonal ingredients as its inspiration.
Chef Bryce Bonsack graduated from Tampa Catholic before he began working in restaurants while attending college at Auburn University. While working under Chef David Bancroft at Amsterdam Café, he made the decision to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. While attending culinary school, Bryce interned under Chef Paul Liebrandt at Corton, a two-star Michelin-rated restaurant in New York City. He also interned under Chef Pano Karatassos at his flagship restaurant Kyma in Atlanta.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Bryce joined the team as one of three chefs at Blanca in Brooklyn. Under Chef Carlo Mirarchi, he rose from Chef de Partie to Sous Chef. During his time at Blanca, it was awarded its second star from the Michelin guide, and a third star from the New York Times. Upon returning to Tampa, Bryce decided to open a pasta-focused restaurant using the knowledge he gained working in New York.
He then decided to make the commitment to travel to Italy to see where all pasta originated and learn the techniques of the Italian kitchen. While in Italy, Bryce worked and lived with the Rocca family at their more than a century old restaurant, “Da Felicin” in Monforte d’ Alba, Piemonte. During his stay, he traveled to Liguria, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, and Rome. Although his travels in Italy were extensive, he always looked forward to coming back to Monforte d’ Alba and the generosity of the Rocca family. Before he left, he asked the family if he could name his new restaurant Rocca, in honor of their amazing hospitality and the relationship they had made.
The restaurant business has been a part of Andrew’s life before he was even born. In 1932, his grandfather, Porter Angel, opened Angel’s Dining car in Palatka, Florida. As Florida’s oldest dining car, it remains open to this day and is a landmark of central Florida.
Andrew began his restaurant career at the age of fifteen, working for “Rude” Roy Centenni at Canopies in Panama City, Florida. After working at Canopies through his high school years, Andrew left Panama City to study at Auburn University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Hotel and Restaurant Management. Mr. Harris’s career and expertise has taken him around the country: from Amsterdam Café and Maestro 2300 in Auburn, Alabama, to The Ritz Carlton Hotel at The Reynolds Plantation; The Baltimore Country Club in Baltimore, Maryland, and to Café Thirty-A and Firefly in the Florida Panhandle. In 2009, Andrew attained the certificate of Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers and has been living the passion of the wine business ever since.
Starting in 2013, Andrew moved to Atlanta to work for Anne Quatranno as the sommelier of Bacchanalia, Floataway Café, and Star Provisions, attaining a James Beard semi-finalist nomination in 2013 and 2014 for outstanding service. In 2018, Mr. Harris decided to move back to Florida and worked briefly with Maryann Ferenc at the Tampa icon, Mise en Place before joining the Rocca team.
Nick Orr’s restaurant career began when he was just fifteen years old. He worked directly under Chef Pano Karatassos at one of the top Greek restaurants in the nation, Kyma, in Atlanta. Over six years, Nick held every position of Kyma’s kitchen until he was promoted to Sous Chef.
In search of a new challenge, Nick moved to Manhattan to work under Chef Éric Ripert at the lauded three-star Michelin restaurant, Le Bernardin. Nick was then offered an amazing opportunity by his mentor, Chef Pano, to open Lobster Bar and Sea Grille in Miami with The Buckhead Life team.
Nick relocated to South Beach and worked for Chef Pano until joining the Rocca team. Chef Nick has worked and lived with the Rocca family in Monforte d’ Alba in the height of white truffle season, learning first hand the tasks of making fresh pasta, cleaning baskets of truffles, and living the Italian lifestyle.
Rocca Tampa has been awarded the Fred Bollaci Enterprises Platinum Palate Certificate of Excellence, recognizing their exceptional quality, authenticity, service, ambience, and overall experience. Rocca is definitely on the level of the best ristoranti in food meccas like New York City and San Francisco–Tampa is fortunate to have a place of this caliber. Buon’ Appetito!
323 W. Palm Ave.
Tampa, FL 33602
(Across the street from the Armature Works)