The grilled octopus is a highlight on the hot-appetizers menu, which also includes baseball-sized burrata imported from Italy.
The grilled octopus is a highlight on the hot-appetizers menu, which also includes baseball-sized burrata imported from Italy. Credit: Andrea Bauer

There’s a reason you’ve never had a shrimp meatball.

To a great extent, shrimp’s appeal is its texture, its seafood snap. Likewise, the appeal of a meatball is its, well, meatiness: the heft and chew of ground beef, pork, veal—or, better yet, a combination of all three—bound with an egg yolk and bread crumbs, brightened by parsley and minced garlic, packed into a not-too-tight ball, browned in a skillet, and cooked through in a warm oven. Maybe that’s boring—the equivalent of a spherical meat loaf—but there’s something to be said for the mundane when you’re face-to-face with a pair of spongy beige balls the consistency of the medium-density tofu that you find at cheap Chinese restaurants. The meatballs taste vaguely of shrimp, though there’s not a discernible chunk. The sauce they’re drenched in, a creamy blend of lemon, wine, and curry, is good, if out of place in an Italian joint. But there’s almost no getting past that bizarre, custardy texture. It’s just kind of a rude thing to do to shrimp.

There are five varieties of designer meatballs on the menu at J. Rocco Italian Table & Bar, and while it’s unfair to judge a place on meatballs alone, they tend to be decent indicators of an Italian restaurant’s success (or at least its reverence for tradition). Fortunately, chef Steve Chiappetti’s other, meatier takes on the classic are much better in concept and execution. And that makes sense: Chiappetti’s ancestors founded and operated Chicago’s oldest slaughterhouse, Chiappetti Lamb & Veal, a thing that’s mentioned on J. Rocco’s website for credibility’s sake, no doubt. Chiappetti made his own name as a chef at local spots Rhapsody, Mango, Viand, and Costa d’Oro. Veal meatballs aren’t an option he offers at J. Rocco, unfortunately, but the ones built from ground lamb, packed with fresh mint and served in a lamb gravy, are a flavor-dense take on the lamb and mint jelly you were served as a kid. Or at least I was served as a kid. More on meatballs in a minute.

J. Rocco’s clean, simple menu—the fusilli with pulled chicken, spinach, pine nuts, and cream sauce is listed simply as “Fusilli,” the crusted salmon with artichoke and spinach ragout and roasted tomato olive sauce is just “Salmon,” etc—attempts to strike a balance between rustic and modern. The dishes that tend toward rustic are better. The space itself is modern, save for the exposed brick of the north wall. The atmosphere is pleasant enough, and I particularly enjoyed having small plates and cocktails at the bar earlyish on a Tuesday evening when the rest of the place was basically empty. (Good luck getting a spot at the 12-seat bar on a Friday evening. And better luck hearing yourself think.) The tender grilled octopus is a highlight on the hot-appetizers menu, though certain bites were overwhelmed by the bitterness of the arugula and sharpness of red onions. Baseballs of burrata imported from Italy—with a creamy, almost egg-white-loose exterior—seeped into a puddle of tomato sauce to be sopped up with bread.

On paper, the bar’s selection of craft cocktails is limited but attractive. In practice, it’s a pretty one-note menu—and that note is sweet. The Scarlet Harlot, J. Rocco’s take on an old-fashioned, is made with bourbon (sweet), blood orange (also pretty sweet), and Meletti Amaro (cinnamony sweet, like a wad of Big Red gum). It was the color of fruit punch when it arrived at the table, which was a bad sign. I’m not sure why I thought the Agrodolce, made with rye and strawberry-rhubarb grenadine, would be any better, but I abandoned that thought when the drink arrived in a cocktail glass rimmed with sugar. The exception to the sweet rule was the Parasole, a take on a mojito with muddled watermelon and basil. Hard as hell to suck through a straw, but also hard not to drink.

Speaking of basil, a hydroponic herb garden occupies a wall between the end of the bar and the entrance to the kitchen. The garden’s young, so it’s unlikely that all or even most of the restaurant’s fresh herbs are being harvested from it, but it’s a visual reminder of the kitchen’s preference for fresh ingredients. Except for the pennette, which is gluten-free, all of the pastas are made in-house. The three-inch-tall hunk of focaccia that’s served premeal, almost like a savory pound cake, is baked in-house. One evening the kitchen couldn’t source a fresh enough specimen for the sturgeon entree, so they substituted halibut. Unfortunately, the preparation of that dish—an onion crust and a cream sauce—was so salty it basically didn’t matter that the fish was fresh, not to mention beautifully cooked. The bed of Swiss chard the halibut rested on was limp and sopped with oil, another shame. Nor did that particular green have a chance to shine when it was minced to bits and tucked inside the raviolini—but the handmade pasta and fresh, basily tomato sauce made me feel pretty forgiving. The tagliatelle entree served in a meat sauce with pork belly, veal, and chuck is maybe the best thing on the menu. It’s so simple and so traditional, but the hand-cut pasta and the trio of meats make it rich, homey, and complex. A bite never bored me.

The chicken meatballs, on the other hand, which were recommended by each of the very nice, knowledgeable servers I encountered (and one nice, knowledgeable bartender), were easy to tire of. The thick flavor of smoked bacon turned the dish into a good-looking guy with a bad personality. I fell out of love more with every bite. The red pepper cream sauce was understated and lovely: a kind of dumpy guy with a great personality.

The best meatball was the simplest meatball: pork and oregano in a fresh, pleasantly acidic tomato sauce. There’s something to be said for tradition.