ROC Restaurant opened in mid-April near the heart of the Highlands' Restaurant Row. | Photos by Steve Coomes

I was certain I heard Rocco Cadolini say he’d been working on his new spot, ROC Restaurant, for three years.

“No, two years, just two,” he says, correcting me kindly. Adding with a grin, he says, “If it was three, I’d cut myself.”

As in a suicidal way, implying that there’s nothing easy about opening a new restaurant, especially when dealing with permitting. The city hasn’t yet approved the bourbon-barrel ROC sign that will hang from the newly erected pergola at the sidewalk of 1372 Bardstown Road. And the kitchen: built from the ground up in what was the backyard of the former Emma Lou’s Café, the city wasn’t sure it would allow that either. (Thankfully it relented and there’s an amazing and spacious cooking area there now.) And the pergola over the curbside patio: the city didn’t like Cadolini original plans, which included a more natural design that would have appeared as if live trees were growing from the ground. What’s there for now are sterile but sturdy 8-by-8-inch posts, but that’ll change.

Rocco Candolini, a native of Italy's Amalfi Coast, owns and operates ROC Restaurant.
Rocco Candolini, a native of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, owns and operates ROC Restaurant.

“Eventually, there will be an awning over the top to shade from the sun, and misters, too, because I know how hot it gets here in the summer,” Cadolini says. The native Italian’s accent is heavy, but after 28 years in the U.S., it’s wrapped as comfortably around English as prosciutto drapes melon. “It’s all coming together. It just takes time.”

Cadolini knows. He’s done two prior restaurants: one in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City, and another in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section. Connected to neither now, he’s all in when it comes to his Louisville investment. Parents of his wife, Stacey, live here, and they wanted their two daughters close to kin.

Also relocated are his two chefs, Giovanni Penace (pronounced “pen-ah-chay”) and Davide Zigrino. Both men are from Italy’s

Puglia region; Penace moved to the U.S. a few years ago, while Zigirinio just arrived.

When I ask him how diners might find ROC different from other Louisville Italian standbys, Cadolini, first compliments his competitors, saying they’ve done well developing their own niches over time. The difference, he says, will be in his chefs’ interpretations of the foods of their homeland.

“I told them to just make authentic Italian—what your grandmother made,” he says.

That means things like fresh mozzarella and burrata, and housemade pasta.

“I just bought this beautiful machine,” Cadolini says, pointing to the pasta maker and its three dyes for cutting fettuccini, spaghetti and pappardelle. “There’s nothing better that fresh pasta, ah?”

It also means grilled octopus with potatoes (polipo alla griglia con tortino di patate), linguine and clam (linguine alle vongole) roasted branzino (branzino al cartoccio), pork Parmigiana (lombata di maiale alla Parmigiana) and many more items Italian food fans will recognize. The pasta lineup features seven dishes, the panini menu just two choices. Short and simple, Cadolini says, to “keep food fresh coming in and going out. Prices range from $8 for smaller plates, to $30 for entrees.

The entire space is an interesting one, a combination of a farmhouse and a trattoria. Guests enter through the patio and pergola before stepping inside to the main dining room, a modest spot with a long bar and multiple bare wood tables and floors. Candolini calls that mostly a cocktail area until guests arriving for dinner are seated further toward the back. When it fills in, a curtain will be pulled to cordon off drinkers from diners. A naturally lit glass walled room toward the front is an all-weather space overlooking the patio.

“Upstairs is a little bit more formal,” Cadolini says, climbing ROC’s wooden stairs. “Up here it will be mostly white tablecloth.”

A trio of spaces can be used for private events or overflow from the main floor. He envisions guests who want a quiet experience will go there.

Cadolini opened without announcement nearly two weeks ago in order to give his staff real-time training without the pressure of large crowds.

“Right now we’re kind of taking it easy and learning how we want it to run,” he says. “But last night, there were just a few of us here and it got busy. I had to jump in.”

Ready to go yourself? Hours are 5-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 5-11 Friday and Saturday. Lunch will follow once dinner business is solid, and he expects it’ll open from 12-3 p.m., Monday-Friday. Future Saturdays should see brunch served from 10 to 4 p.m.

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Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 25-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass, Whisky Magazine, and The Bourbon Review. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.