When I married a Notre Dame alum, I knew I was also pledging a lifetime of remaining indulgent of the many cult-like traditions that come with an ND education. While most of these involve devoting every Saturday from Labor Day through Thanksgiving to College Game Day discussion, another crucial allegiance is the annual pilgrimage(s) to a beloved South Bend pizza place. There are two, maybe three spots near campus that inspire such fierce pizza loyalty. Some are regulars at Bruno's, others at Barnaby's, but the oldest is Rocco's, which calls itself "the other South Bend tradition" since 1951.
On a football Friday between 5:00 and 6:00 pm, when the pep rally is in full swing at the Joyce Center, you can waltz right in for a two-top. By 6:30, there's no way you won't be packed chest to chest with the other Domers in their Irish gear. No worries. Rocco's will bring you a 32-oz. Miller High Life or Bud Light from the kitchen cooler while you wait for your table in a room whose decor can be best described as "my grandparents' living room circa 1981" with vases of faux floral arrangements, family photos and... pictures of Regis Philbin.
When in South Bend, do as the Domers do: as a newbie, I was urged to try the top-selling Rocco's Combo with homemade sausage, shaved raw green peppers, onions, and mushrooms; or the Veggie Combo with fresh tomatoes, garlic, and basil. Torn between both options, my server (undefatigable despite a dining room crawling with soda-charged kids, rowdy alumni returnees, and boisterous regulars) happily let me split the difference with a half-and-half pizza.
I'm one of the many who detest cooked green peppers—on my pizza, in my chili, or anywhere else in my food—so it was a welcome change to see the Rocco's combo brought to the table with a healthy sprinkling of crunchy raw peppers, sliced paper-thin. Same with the onions, not as overpowering as expected when paired with sweet crumbles of sausage and nearly-invisible mushrooms.
Edging toward overpowering, on the other hand, was the minced raw garlic that dominated the veggie combo, flecked across thin rounds of fresh tomato. As he grabbed a slice, my husband reminisced about Rocco's being the first place he tried fresh garlic on a pizza, and luckily for the health and longevity of our marriage, it made a favorable impression. Because Rocco's has a light touch with its simple tomato sauce and lets the cheese take a backseat to the rest of the toppings—acting as the glue to keep the mountains of shaved vegetables on the pizza—the overall effect is light and satisfying, even when eating a slice more than you really have room for.
I'm not a Domer, but I did grow up under the tutelage of an Italian grandma—a Calabrian grandma, no less, from the same region as the family who owns Rocco's. And I completely understand the ritual desire for simple Italian immigrant cooking that has sustained Rocco's and restaurants just like it across the country. Vinaigrette dressing, more vinegar than oil, puddles at the bottom of a bowl with iceberg lettuce, shredded mozzarella, salty olives, spicy pepperoncini, and thin pepperoni slices. A brick of lasagna dropped off at a neighboring table resembles the monolith from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Aluminum catering trays leaving for pre-tailgate parties buckle under the weight of the pastas inside; sweatshirt-clad dads walk out the door with stacks of cardboard pizza boxes three and four high.
In a college town like South Bend where a high premium is placed on tradition, restaurants like Rocco's will stick around for decades. Whether or not your taste preferences lean toward its thin-crust, light sauce, layered topping style or Bruno's thicker crust, heavier sauce, toppings-under-cheese version, you could say that both institutions have home field advantage.
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