By Christiana Lilly
Photography by James Arbogast
Just south of downtown Fort Lauderdale is an unassuming white building with a metal sign out front announcing “Valentino.” Once inside, it’s like falling into a rabbit hole. In the middle of this Italian restaurant is an open kitchen with chefs slicing away at scallions and flipping pasta over a hot fire. The traditional Mediterranean dining room with white-washed walls, an oversized velvet sofa and linen tablecloths has become a standard of dining excellence since opening in 2006 and then moving to its current location in 2012. Make no mistake, though, Chef Giovanni Rocchio’s restaurant is far from traditional.
The first-generation Italian-American grew up in the restaurant business with his siblings at the family’s restaurant, Valentino, in Plantation. Food wasn’t a passion, just quick cash. However, when he moved up to New York in his late 20s, something ignited within him and soon he was working at Mario Batali’s restaurants—for free—to gain experience. When his father retired from Valentino, Rocchio moved back to Broward County to open up his own restaurant, keeping the name.
Rocchio takes us on a food-making journey in Broward County, surrounded by coriander, cilantro and unique Thai lavender frog egg eggplants from Harpke Family Farm in Dania Beach and then to his restaurant. Here, he shows us what inspires every dish and creation that comes from his very soul.
How did you learn to make pasta?
I learned from these Mexican girls who learned from an 80-year-old Italian lady who was amazing at pasta. I got in with them because they really wouldn’t let other people inside this circle, this realm, this cult. The chef was Italian, and I said, “Can you please get me in? I really want to learn, I’ll work for free, and I’ll come in the morning.” So I learned how to make orecchiette and just a bunch of other pastas.
How does fresh pasta compare with the dried variety?
Good ingredients are going to yield a great product. There’s really no comparison. Some dry pastas, like extruded pastas, can be good bought from the top producers; but fresh pasta and stuffed pasta—there’s just no comparison. We get a lot of compliments on our pasta, especially fusilli, in particular. There’s nothing like it; you just have to try it.
What made you more passionate about food?
When I realized that I wasn’t good enough to be a professional athlete or good enough to be a professional musician. I had to pick the thing that was the next best thing I was good at, so I kind of did it out of necessity. I went up to New York and worked with some of the top chefs there, and that’s when I realized how amazing food is. And it’s an art, too. It happened when I was around 30 years old. Now it’s an obsession.
With such an emphasis on fresh ingredients, how does that influence your cooking and menu?
If you get a tomato and it’s ripened on the farm, all you have to do is put some olive oil and salt, and it’s delicious. Even a great chef can’t make a bad tomato taste good. They can put balsamic vinegar, they can put all kinds of stuff on it; by that time, the flavor’s been masked so you’re not really tasting a tomato. Sometimes, the less you manipulate a product, the better it is.
How do your travels to Europe influence you?
Whenever I go on my trips, I visit my favorite restaurants and make a point of meeting the chef. I say, “I enjoyed your food. I’d love to do a wine dinner, and we’d love to have you as a guest.” I often invite them to my restaurant. We’ve had great success with these top guys coming over to Fort Lauderdale. We’ll do it three or four times a year—we already have a few lined up.
Tell us about the new restaurant you’re opening next door to Valentino.
We’re calling it One Door East. The space has been our pasta- and bread-making office space for a while. So we decided to officially open up as another restaurant with different cuisine. It’ll hopefully be open by the end of February or middle of March. We’re excited about the cuisine because it’s not going to all focus on Italian or Mediterranean flavors, it’s going to be Spanish, American and then we’re going to throw some Asian food in there.
Originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue.