Rocco’s Pizzeria – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)
In an age of sensory bombardment, we all occasionally experience a phenomenon known as an “earworm.” Earworm is a literal translation of a German term for a song (particularly an annoying one) stuck in someone’s head. For some it’s the Gilligan’s Island theme song. For others, it might be “It’s a Small World” or the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”
In the 1960s, one television commercial was responsible for an earworm that afflicted many of us in the Albuquerque viewing area. It was a commercial for Peppino’s Pizza Joint and the words to its annoyingly catchy jingle were “The p-pizza’s p-perfect at Peppino’s, the p-pizza’s p-perfect at Peppino’s p-pizza joint.” I’ll bet some of the more “seasoned” (geriatrically advanced like me) members of the Duke City Fix’s Born in ‘Burque group reading this post are cursing me because now they can’t get that jingle out of their minds.
Peppino’s Pizza Joint and that catchy jingle have been gone now for close to forty years, but the jingle is reborn every time I passed by or thought about Petitto’s Pizzeria in Rio Rancho. Petitto’s, which opened in 2007, was ensconced in a fairly nondescript strip shopping center on Southern Boulevard and was not at all easy to spot. I’m writing in the past tense, of course, because in 2011, Pettito’s was renamed Rocco’s Pizzeria where it now shares signage and space with Esperanza’s Cocina Mexicana. Esperanza’s offers a pretty ambitious menu considering the relatively cramped quarters and the fact that the only visible ovens in the store are pizza ovens. Apparently the Mexican food is prepared in the back room.
Rocco’s is wholly unlike the phalanx of New York influenced or New York style pizzerias in Rio Rancho. The state’s third most populous city is often referred to as “Little New York” on account of the hundreds of New Yorkers who moved to the then untamed western fringes overlooking the Rio Grande. In fact, you might call Rocco’s “Pennsylvania” style pizza (though the marquee calls it “Eastern style pizza.”
Rocco’s proprietor is blessed with the perfect name for an Eastern pizzeria. Though originally from New Jersey, Rocco Petitto is as Pennsylvania as they come as evidenced by his pizzeria being a veritable shrine to the keystone state’s professional sports teams. Framed under glass are autographed jerseys worn by some of the best professional athletes to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Philadelphia Eagles, Phillies or 76ers. The jerseys of Donovan McNabb, Pete Rose and others along with signed pictures of other Pennsylvania sports luminaries flank flat-screen televisions poised above the two seating areas.
Rocco’s is primarily a take-out enterprise with eat-in accommodations for just a handful of pizza patrons. It’s locally owned and operated competition for Domino’s, Papa John’s, Little Caesar’s and other chain restaurants of that ilk. Its pizza is better than the aforementioned corporate giants can offer.
The menu includes four signature pizzas, which may seem pretty standard (meat lovers, veggie, the works), but look closely and you’ll see that its Hawaiian pizza is called the “Porker” and it includes not only ham and pineapple (pretty traditional), but also almonds and cinnamon (non-standard). Specialty pizzas include a buffalo chicken pizza complete with chicken and wing sauce and dressed with your choice of bleu cheese or ranch, a Philly cheese steak pizza and a White Pizza (olive oil instead of tomato sauce).
Pizza comes in sizes ranging from 10-inches to 24-inches. If neither the signature or specialty pizzas will do, Rocco’s has about a dozen toppings from A (anchovies) to T (tomatoes). You can also add these toppings to the calzones which start pretty basic with mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.
The menu also includes six- and twelve-inch hoagies served on an Italian roll with oregano, lettuce, tomato and onions; hot sandwiches (including a Philly cheese steak, albeit made with American cheese instead of Cheese Whiz), calzones and salads. Other offerings include buffalo wings (hot or mild), breadsticks and cheese bread.
The cheese bread is bubbling with herb infused melting cheese. The first thing you’ll notice is that the crust, both on the cheese bread and on the pizza, is wholly unlike New York style crust. For one thing, it barely has a hint of char and its crust is chewy and dense with nary any crispiness. Its outside edges don’t bulge out excessively and as such, are lacking in the airy holes so prevalent in some New York style pizza. In fact, on the pizza, the outside edges are not that much thicker than the pizza itself.
Anyway, the cheese bread is, well…cheesy. Melted to a perfect consistency (so it’s neither stringy or oily), the cheese and bread combination are best right out of the oven when hot. Unable to finish all six slices, we tried the next day to eat the cheese bread cold and were disappointed. The cheese bread is served with your choice of pizza dipping sauce or Ranch dressing. We found the pizza dipping sauce, not that it was needed when the pizza was hot, over-salted. A good substitute is Catalina dressing, a sweeter rendition of French dressing. The sweetness of the Catalina is a flavorful contrast and complement to the cheese.
Now Catalina dressing on cheese bread or pizza is either going to repulse you or you’ll love it instantly. We were turned on to it while living in Mississippi when about the only pizza we could get was from one of the aforementioned chains. The truth is, good pizza should not need Catalina dressing or any other flavor boost. Good pizza should be able to stand out on its own without help.
I’m torn between calling the pizza at Petitto’s good pizza or dismissing it altogether as not to my liking. The fact that we employed the old reliable Catalina dressing has me leaning toward the latter. The ingredients (pepperoni, sausage, ground beef, onions, mushrooms, green peppers and onions) on “The Works” were all fresh and delicious, but the saltiness of the tomato sauce detracted from our ability to discern other traditional pizza seasonings such as oregano and basil. The saltiness may have been an anomaly and we just hit the pizzeria on an off-day. A second pizza was in order to know for sure.
My second pizza at Rocco’s was a Philly Cheesesteak Pizza and it may have proven that my inaugural pizza experience at Rocco’s was an anomaly. This pizza is essentially the restaurant’s chewy pizza crust topped with the fabulous, creamy white American cheese used on Philly Cheesesteak Sandwiches, topped with the other sandwich ingredients: mushrooms, onions and bell peppers. This is a very rich indulgence sans tomato sauce, but it’s not a traditional “white” pizza.
Neither is the Buffalo Chicken Pizza (pictured below) crafted with the ingredients that grace the world-famous Buffalo chicken wings, save for the bones, of course. The chicken is tender and mostly white meat. The buffalo sauce has a penetrating piquancy, a surprising bite though not anything a native New Mexican can’t handle easily. As with other Rocco’s pizzas, the crust is delicious and the cheese is of very high quality.
One thing that is certain–Rocco’s offers the one of the two best Philly Cheese Steaks I’ve had in New Mexico (the other is at Itsa Italian Ice). You might think that’s not a tremendous accomplishment considering the dearth of good Philly Cheese Steaks–and not only in New Mexico, but this one could compete in Philadelphia. Heresy, you say. I’ve had Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches in some of the City of Brotherly Love’s most hallowed pantheons of cheese steak and found many of them were more hype than substance. I’m talking rubbery, tasteless bread; razor-thin shards of leathery meat, and gloppy Cheez-Whiz with onions.
Rocco’s Philly Cheese Steak is artfully crafted with thinly shaved shards of beef (imported from Philadelphia) and a creamy white American cheese that has an almost sensual relationship with the meat. That means every bit of the meat that’s intertwined with that cheese is terrific…so much so that more of the cheese might have made it a new favorite guilty pleasure. In fact, I recommend you order a double portion of cheese as my friend Paul Lilly does. Add caramelized onions, mushrooms and small bits of green pepper on a twelve-inch hoagie roll and you’ve got a Philly that’s better than (forgive the sacrilege) some of best I’ve had in Philadelphia. In its annual food and wine issue for 2010, Albuquerque The Magazine featured Petitto’s Philly CheeseSteak in a feature entitled “An Ex-Pat’s Guide to the Food You Miss.”
The hoagie roll, by the way, is made by Amoroso’s Baking, which “makes the rolls that make Philly sandwiches famous.” Rocco’s tried using hoagie rolls baked in the Albuquerque area, but–and even the proudest Duke City residents will agree–our water’s “chemical” taste influences so much of what is prepared here. Rocco’s would rather spend a little more on outstanding Philadelphia quality bread than compromise a great Philly cheese sub with an inferior bread.
If your preferences lean toward unheated sandwiches, Rocco’s has several options for which you should forego any thoughts of visiting Subway, the ubiquitous chain presence that has dominated the sandwich market for years. Rocco’s Italian hoagie is better by several orders of magnitude than any sandwich I remember having at Subway back in the dark ages when I wasn’t enlightened and occasionally visited chain restaurants.
As with all Rocco’s hoagies, the Italian is served on an Italian roll with oregano, tomato, lettuce, tomato and onions, but what makes it a sandwich masterpiece is how the bread and condiments meld with provolone cheese, Genoa salami, Capicola ham, pepperoni and olive oil. The bread is soft, but substantial enough to handle the moistness and volume of the ingredients, all of which are top notch. The meats are delicious and of very high quality.
The American Hoagie is another 12-inches of sandwich deliciousness. Crafted with American cheese, Genoa Salami, ham and turkey ameliorated with lettuce, tomatoes and sliced onion, it’s the type of sandwich you might make for yourself if you had access to the terrific ingredients from which this sandwich is made. Those ingredients are packed tightly into the pillowy soft bun. Rocco’s doesn’t scrimp on ingredients or on flavor.
Rocco’s Meatball Sub, a twelve-inch behemoth made with seven meatballs, several thick slices of provolone, a dusting of parmesan and a tangy tomato sauce all laid out in the wonderful hoagie rolls from Amoroso’s Bakery is one of the better meatball subs in the Duke City area. The meatballs, though not made on the premises, are quite good with little discernible filler. It’s the sauce, a celebration of the acidic qualities of tomatoes, that makes the meatballs zing.
Rocco’s has several menu options which warrant return visits even if it means not getting that annoying earworm out of your head.
2418 Southern Blvd
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 4 April 2011
1st VISIT: 9 October 2008
# OF VISITS: 8
BEST BET: Cheese Bread, Philly Cheese Steak, Italian hoagie, American Hoagie, Meatball Hoagie, Buffalo Chicken Pizza