You would never guess that Valentino Cucina Italiana chef-owner Giovanni Rocchio was, at one time, buying and selling real estate. Or that in his spare time, he practices mixed martial arts and hones his wrestling technique. You might even find it hard to believe that when cooking at home, his diet can be considered bland, at best: egg whites, turkey, and simple steamed fish.
But on a recent afternoon at his Fort Lauderdale Italian restaurant, Rocchio divulges all this without hesitation, telling the story of how he came to own one of the city's most lauded restaurants -- and what it took to get there.
Cooking, it seems, is in Rocchio's blood; he was born into the restaurant industry, starting with his family's pizzeria, Zialisa, which opened in 1966 in Edison, New Jersey. It was here, at age 7, Rocchio first learned the ropes of the kitchen, washing dishes and helping the staff behind the scenes.
When the family -- his mother hailing from Abruzzo, Italy, and his father from Naples -- relocated to South Florida in the mid-'70s, they opened a new restaurant in Plantation. The white-tablecloth establishment served all the favorite Italian trappings -- staples like lasagna, veal piccata, and eggplant Parmesan. He named the restaurant Valentino, after the famous silent film star Rudolph Valentino.
Over the years, Rocchio worked the business alongside his father while dabbling in other careers, all the while dreaming of life as a famous musician or athlete. The kitchen, says Rocchio, was the only place he excelled.
Although he isn't classically trained, Rocchio honed his skills as he traveled extensively, tasting his way across Italy and Europe for inspiration. Rocchio also spent close to a decade in New York City, working his way through some of Manhattan's esteemed kitchens and garnering wisdom from the country's most talented chefs.
There was Picholine, where he learned the basics of French cooking. And Union Square Café, where he was taught a healthy appreciation for international cuisine. And, of course, Fiamma, one of the first restaurants to take an upscale approach to Italian fare. It was also where he learned to make pasta by hand from a couple of Mexican girls who had themselves been taught by an 80-year-old Italian woman.
"That was life-changing for me," said Rocchio. "And today, it's what [Valentino] is known for. I want to educate my customers on what real Italian food is. So when people come here to celebrate or have a special night, that's exactly what they'll get. Something special."
After his father retired, Rocchio took the reins at Valentino; now in his early 40s, he had the idea to push the envelope and expose South Florida to elevated Italian cuisine. His first menu was half of his father's most popular dishes, mixed with half of his own recipes. He kept certain dishes for the loyal patrons, like the veal scallopini and chicken livers with onion.
By the end of his second year, however, Rocchio had overhauled the entire menu, introducing dishes like tripe, sweetbreads, quail, turbot, and foie gras. No more could you find those stagnant Italian dishes listed on the menu at every trattoria in town. Weekly specials rotate seasonal ingredients and demonstrate Rocchio's passion for fresh, new, and fun fare.
"My attitude towards [pushing the envelope] was that I didn't care, and maybe that's why it worked so well. I just wanted to see an evolution in Italian fare, and I had all these ideas," says Rocchio. "It was an exciting and thrilling time for me."
Still, pasta would always be the heart of Valentino. While machines can mix fresh dough and roll out sheets with precision, Rocchio takes the time to mix, form, shape, and cook the restaurant's pasta. It's part of the daily ritual and therefore not uncommon to find him hard at work, covered in flour. The fusilli is especially demanding, he says, a pasta that must be hand-rolled and formed and even gave him a bad case of tendonitis. After a short break, however, Rocchio was back at it.
Valentino is most famous for its casoncelli, stuffed pasta with a rich veal and pancetta filling served with a creamy brown butter sauce. The butternut squash tortelli are a personal favorite, however, a dish inspired by a meal at the Michelin-starred Ristorante dal Pescatore in Northern Italy.
In 2012, Valentino moved to its current location just south of the tunnel, on the outskirts of downtown Fort Lauderdale. With its panoramic window views, impressive open kitchen, and chic, rustic interior, the restaurant is the physical embodiment of Rocchio's push for better dining in Fort Lauderdale.
"This city isn't known as a foodie city," says Rocchio. "I want to change that. It has been, and always will be, my vision to help make Fort Lauderdale a culinary destination."
With plans to open a new concept next door to Valentino, Rocchio is ready to take on the world of tapas, with a globally inspired theme that will highlight Spanish, Asian, and American cuisine. Appropriately named One Door East, the restaurant is being constructed in the space adjoining Valentino, with a convenient pass-through between both establishments.
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Rocchio's newest passion, however, is making bread. Like the pasta, he's been making Valentino's ciabatta, focaccia, brioche, and filone for several years -- but dreams of doing more. Already he's making plans to open an artisan bakery nearby and is currently searching for a location.
To say Rocchio is a busy man is an understatement. When asked what the recipe for success has been all these years, Rocchio sums it up in one word.
"Respect. Respect for the product, and respect for the customers," says Rocchio. "A good chef is only as good as his ingredients, and I want people to know they are getting the best. I am always saying, 'It's not good enough. We can make it better.' And that's the secret to anyone's success."
Valentino Cucina Italiana is located at 620 S. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-523-5767, or visit valentinocucinaitaliana.com.