Where: 13795 West Jewell Avenue, Lakewood
When: Open 4 to 9 pm Sunday through Thursday and 4 to 10 pm Friday and Saturday starting April 7
For more info: Visit rocaspizzaandpasta.com
What we saw: The very first night of service at a new restaurant is more like a dress rehearsal. All the staff has been training, but until actual people sit down to eat, there’s no way to know what the pain points will be. On April 5, Roca’s Pizza & Pasta went all in with a real dress rehearsal, packing the room for the first of two invite-only soft-opening nights. While yes, there were a few (expected) snags, there were also plenty of smiles. Roca’s officially opens on Thursday, April 7.
Most of the people at this preview had eaten pizza in the room before: For 35 years, the location was home to Frontroom Pizza. But on January 9, that longtime Lakewood institution closed its doors and underwent a transformation led by James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Seidel, owner of Fruition and Mercantile, and one of the founders of Chook Charcoal Chicken.
“We’re just looking to have a fun little pizza and pasta shop,” Seidel told Westword in January. The chef / restaurateur lives in the area, and was excited to open a spot in his own neighborhood.
Roca’s still feels like a neighborhood joint, albeit a cleaned-up version of its previous iteration. The design is simple with wood floors; a few large, brown booths; black-and-white checkered tablecloths and a simple salad bar in the middle of one of the dining areas. It’s like a modern, more monochrome take on the vibes of an old-school Pizza Hut, back when those were full-service restaurants – although there are no big, translucent red cups.
Many of the waitstaff are high-schoolers – some served their first tables ever during this preview – but even if they’re still learning, they were eager to help with any request. Sure, a few items took a while to find their way to the right tables, and one glass of pinot never made it at all, but for its first service, Roca’s was buzzing as thin, tavern-style pies, thicker Sicilian pizzas and a while lot of pasta was pumped out of the kitchen.
What surprised us: The fresh pasta.
“It’s hard because I want to make it as red sauce as possible, but I also want to make my own pasta here,” Seidel explained a few months ago “So there’s a fine line between going to where it’s not approachable for this neighborhood. Even though we’re going to make our own pasta, they are going to be simple, classic Italian recipes. “
That plan has now come to fruition. The pasta selections ($ 15- $ 18) include the basics – any of the six housemade pasta shapes (which are illustrated on the menu – a thoughtful touch) can be served with alfredo and marinara; lasagna, chicken parm with spaghetti, bolognese and vodka sauce are all present and accounted for, too. There are a few less common selections, such as strozzapreti alla diavola with sausage from Carmine Lonardo’s and spaghetti alle vongole with clams, but they’re all comforting classics. While dried pasta could have been used, extruding fresh noodles in-house makes for a more pleasant mouthfeel – soft, silky and even almost chewy (in a good way) with the thicker noodles, like the strozzapreti.
Seidel’s commitment to keeping prices affordable is a nice surprise, too. As an award-winning fine dining chef, he certainly could have opted to make Roca’s more of a destination restaurant. Instead, he’s taking lessons from the fast-casual Chook Chicken, opting to design a menu and restaurant for those who live nearby. Start with $ 5 garlic bread and mussels for $ 14. A trip to the salad bar is $ 10, while pizza is available in three sizes so that you can budget according to the size of your group.
Seidel started his career in Italian restaurants, and thirty or so years later, his passion for the simple beauty of a good red sauce joint shines at his newest venture – even if it may need a little time to smooth out service.