Mamma mia: Italian chow controls the compass

It's not me and my Italian roots, I promise. Italian food really is dominating restaurant news in Charlottesville this week, starting with Rococo's, the veteran Italian-style restaurant and bar on Commonwealth Drive.

Service never skipped a beat, but the restaurant actually got a new set of owners last month– restaurateurs with a loyal following of their own. Christine and Willie Manning, the hard-working mother and son team who brought Pizza Bella South (1999) and North (2002) to the area, took over ownership of Rococo's from Bruno and Lisa Conti in mid-September.

"We're very excited about Rococo's because it fits perfectly with our history and Mediterranean style," says Willie, a young and energetic chef with fine dining aspirations (his mentor is chef John Haywood of Oxo).

Manning admits it's a challenge running two restaurants, not to mention three, but he says this opportunity was too good to pass up– especially since Pizza Bella's current El Salvadorian chef Hernan Franco had worked at Rococo's in the past.

How will Rococo's change under the Mannings? For one thing, the name is now officially Rococo's Bistro, and the menu is evolving by the day. The bistro's new menu, which was revealed last weekend, features several of Pizza Bella's most popular items. Since one tenet of the Mannings' philosophy is to spread the goodness of their pizza around town, Pizza Bella pizza– with its abundance of red and white topping options– is now available at Rococo's central Commonwealth Drive location. (Should we expect east or west next?)

Pizza Bella regulars will also notice familiar salads as well as pasta dishes like "tortellini bellissima," "bow tie pasta primavera" and "penne alla vodka." Since Willie, who cooks primarily at Pizza Bella North, is known for inventive specials like "pan-seared tilapia with a roasted shallot, citrus, and caper white wine sauce" and "roasted duck breast with chipotle apple cider," we should expect some surprises.


El Girasol goes Italian, too

 A few weeks ago, a banner reading "Coming soon: Italian Restaurant" appeared above El Girasol in the historic Monticello Dairy Building on Grady Avenue. After several thwarted attempts to catch an actual person in the empty space-­ each of which involved making dangerous U and Z-turns to get onto this elusive sliver of Grady Avenue from Preston or 10th Street-­ my efforts paid off.

Unfortunately, the guy I found, a Brazilian, spoke only Portuguese. I understood just enough to pin down new restaurant owner Sandro Silva at the Shebeen, where he works in their catering division, American Dream Catering.

Silva and business partner (and fellow brasileiro) Rodrigo Dimas took over the El Girasol's spot on September 5 and are currently gearing up for a late October/early November opening of Mamma Mia.

Why Italian instead of Brazilian? For one, they've been working at Italian eateries from Maryland to Gordonsville for years– Silva as manager and Dimas as chef. But they also thought that Italian food was ideal for this location on the edge of UVA's Greek quarter and so close to downtown.

"We thought this area really needed a pizza place," Silva tells Dish, "and everyone loves Italian food."

Mamma Mia's abundant menu lists a lot more than pizza­ appetizers, subs, salads, burgers, and pasta as well as veal, chicken, and seafood entrées and specials. How can so much fit into this relatively small space?

Initial renovations involved knocking down part of the bar and fixing up an extra dining room. We shouldn't have to wait much longer for the complete Mexican-to-Italian transformation.

As for the other half of this puzzle, check out next week's Dish.

Willie Manning