ROCCO'S PLUM TOMATO (585 Bloor West, at Markham, 416-539-9009) Popular suburban spot specializing in mainstream Italiana brings its family-style over-the-top digs downtown. Cooler types will want to take it to the patio to dine in the neon glow of next-door Honest Ed's. Complete dinners for $35 per person, $20 at lunch, including all taxes, tip and a glass of Chianti. Open daily 11 am to 11:30 pm. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
Unlike Frankie Tomatto and Vinnie Zucchini, Rocco really exists. That's Rocco Silvaggio, the creator of Rocco's Plum Tomato, the 14-year-old family-style trat on the Queensway just across from the Food Terminal. Now, with the opening of RPT at the top of Mirvish Village opposite Honest Ed's, there's an outpost of his empire in the Annex (the second is in Etobicoke). The winning formula has been reproduced: straightforward, inexpensive old-school dishes made from quality ingredients, with an emphasis on the three Ps (pasta, pizza 'n' panini).
The late-80s decor has been replicated as well -- smashed ceramic mosaic swirls, deep purple walls clashing with orange-painted floors already wearing thin, sand-blasted brick, faux-Tiffany light fixtures, bare wood-plank tables with high-backed straw-seated chairs. Here and there something zany like a ventriloquist's dummy, a Perry Como album cover or an abandoned bag of golf clubs adds atmosphere. The perfect spot for a preteen birthday party, rococo Rocco makes next-door Honest Ed's bargain basement neon glitz look minimalist.
The room's many alcoves soon fill with extended families. Although there's a children's menu, most of the kids go straight to the pizza lineup ($11.95 lunch/ $10.85 to $16.85 dinner). With their uniform 1/8-inch-thick crust, they're adequate. The 12-inch Pecorella ($11.95) delivers bright red but far-from-summer-ripe Roma tomatoes -- in August? -- a few purple basil leaves, some halved black olives and lumps of goat cheese over tomato sauce; no sign of the advertised pesto and garlic.
Instead, start with a substantial bowl of vegetarian minestrone ($3.50), a fresh-tasting mix of soft beans, al dente ditali and broccoli, potato, carrot, onion, zucchini and celery that still have bite. The veggies swim in a pleasant tomato broth that gets spiked with olive oil. This, with a good shake of Parmesan and crusty chunks of ciabatta ring, makes a substantial meal.
As does the Affetato ($7.85), sliced meat antipasti with spicy cured capicollo, prosciutto and salami as well as artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, briny green olives and fontina on mesclun.
Halfway through a perfectly grilled 8-ounce strip loin topped with green peppercorns in tomato cream ($16.85), I'm ready for a doggy bag. With its sides of de Cecco penne in pulpy tomato sauce and beautifully timed near-bitter rapini, this is one super supper.
So's Stuffed Chicken ($9.95/$15.85), a boneless, skin-free roasted breast split and stuffed with a jus-soaked bread dressing speckled with spinach and peppers. It's sauced in a pale pink rosy cream with just a suggestion of nutmeg and tarragon, and I side it with a serviceable Caesar that's nippier than most, with romaine and radicchio under grilled garlic-bread croutons. Anchovy? Sadly, nothing fishy whatsoever.
Most mains include a choice of daily pasta in pulpy tomato, the hardly hail Caesar or the baby greens -- red leaf, frisée, Swiss chard and arugula, under raw carrot julienne, quartered Roma tomato and red onion rings -- in a mild balsamic vinaigrette ordinaire. I pair the latter with a simple but worthwhile combo of spaghetti mixed with spinach, garlic, spongy ricotta and a final splash of good olive oil ($9.95/$11.85).
Only available at lunch, the Rustico Club ($7.95 with side) -- more of an Italian sub than a triple-decker -- sees a wonderful bun stuffed with roasted red pepper, juicy grilled chicken breast, cheese, caramelized onion, prosciutto and arugula. Quite lovely, really.
But three pounded veal tenderloin fillets sauced with under-powered Gorgonzola ($11.85/$14.95) are best ignored. Wish I could say that about my server at lunch.
"I'm a strange waiter," he cheerfully explains. Not another one, I mutter. I could write paragraphs about this character's madcap behaviour, but I'll spare you the details. Here's a tip better than cash: dinner theatre needs you. email@example.com