21 November 2013

Lost City: Indiana Edition: Rocco's Pizza

Finding good food in South Bend, Indiana, can be a challenge. There aren't many eateries that are thought of as local institutions. But one place that was recommended to me several times was Rocco's, a pizzeria on N. St. Louis Boulevard.

It was founded by Rocco Ameduri, his young wife Julia, and her parents Rose and Louis Simeri. All four were Italian-Americans from the region of Reggio Calabria, in the south of Italy. The younger couple settled in South Bend, where Rocco worked as a cook at Notre Dame, and Julia as a waitress. In 1951, they opened their own place, right next door to where the Simeris lived. The menu consisted of a collection of Simeri and Ameduri recipes.

The original pizzeria seated only 12. (You can see photos of the original buildings below.) Today, it's still fairly small, but the squat, sprawling building seats 150 people.

Rocco's daughter Linda eventually married Warren Verteramo, another Reggio Calabria native who worked in the kitchen in Rocco's from the age of 15. They took over the restaurant in 1991. They expanded the place in 1996 to its present dimensions. Rocco died in 2008. Linda and Warren's two sons also work at Rocco's now.

Rocco's interior is charming in that charmless sort of way that you find often in the Midwest. The tables and chairs are utilitarian. The ceilings are low. The ceiling fans cheap and tacky. There are bouquets of fake flowers. But the walls are covered with photos and clipping, all seeming to use a different style of frame. There are cozy booths along the far wall. And there's a 1970s-era jukebox, full of tunes from the 1950s and '60s. It operates on quarters, and you can still get seven selections for a dollar. To me, the jukebox sealed the appeal of the room.

As for food, there are homemade soups, homemade sausages, subs and hoagies, and large Italian salads, full of pepperoncinis and olives, that you can share. There are also many pasta dishes, including lasagna.

But people come for the pizza, which is spectacular, flavorful, hearty and bespeaking of fresh and homemade ingredients. We had the Rocco's Combo, which includes sausage, onions, fresh mushrooms and green peppers, and is the joint's top seller. Unlike many another everything-goes pizza, these toppings weren't just window dressing. They all actually possessed plenty of flavor. The sturdy crust easily held up under the weight of all those ingredients. It was quite an addictive pie and I easily polished off a few slices. It didn't quite taste like any other pizza I'd had. It wasn't New York style, Chicago style, Milwaukee style or any other style I'd had. Perhaps it's "South Bend style."


upstate Johnny G said...

Making me hungry just looking at the photos! Nice catch, Brooks!! Those Midwest places have a sort of utilitarian homeyness to them that works--cozy, warm, very nice. Thanks for posting this.

Ed said...

I just found your blog and this particular post brought back some found memories. As a student at ND back in the early '70's, many an evening was spent at Rocco's with pizza, a pitcher of beer and good friends.