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Mo Rocca cooks with the senior set

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Just how smart is Mo Rocca, the Zeliglike humorist who provides such a positive role model for geekdom at large?

He has been able to recite the capitals of the world since he was 8 or 9. Much of modern pop culture swirls in his head, and Rocca can dispense it with speed and precision. He is multilingual and a close student of U.S. presidential history — especially the quirky bits. He is on the radio, on television, onstage, online and in print.

The true measure, however, might pertain to the world of food. Rocca has embraced it with all his intellectual rigor — right up to the point of cooking it himself. He’s smart enough to get others to do that for him, on a TV show that has just been picked up for its second season on the Cooking Channel.

“The stomach is the portal to history, to science, to family,” he declares over a plate of deviled pickled eggs at Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan. “I don’t open my oven. But I have become good at chopping.”

The Washington area native slips in and out of town four or five times a year. He’s here this time in service of a “CBS Sunday Morning” piece on jumping rope. Rocca began doing commentary on that show in 2006 and prefers his current gig as contributor of segments on, say, the influence of Mexican hot dogs and the history of Caesar salad.

“I ran out of opinions,” he deadpans. “It was unsustainable. I like being the Charles Nelson Reilly of food.”

The reference to the late comedic actor seems off the cuff. But at 43, Maurice Rocca chooses his words and imagery with purpose. Reilly was a lively presence on many TV talk shows and game shows in the ’60s and ’70s, a campy quipster with a love of theater and a background in children’s programming.

Some adults maintain few vestiges of their childhood selves. In Rocca’s case, traits were established that delight his colleagues and cause his fans to gush on Twitter: He is driven by curiosity, a natural kibbitzer, a gentle prankster, unaffected by fame.

“He is fascinated by things the average person wouldn’t even think about,” says Vance DeGeneres, a friend and fellow “Daily Show” alum who is co-president of actor Steve Carell’s production company in Los Angeles. “I can’t think of anyone else like Mo.”

Rocca spent formative years watching those Reilly-era TV shows at the modest family home in Bethesda where his mother still lives. Do not try to stump him on “Brady Bunch” trivia.

When he wasn’t memorizing the almanac or working his way through the set of World Book encyclopedias, he was finding ways to make his family laugh. Each of the three Rocca boys, Mo being the youngest, became “borderline obsessed” with accumulating knowledge in fields with little overlap, says the middle son, Lawrence, who is director of development at Georgetown Prep. Francis, the eldest (you weren’t expecting “Curly,” were you?), is the Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service.

The younger brothers speak of their parents with great affection, crediting them with creating an environment where music and language were prized. Everybody was funny, Larry says. Mo developed a passion for musicals and show tunes. After a brief stint at parochial school — not a good fit for the irreverent — he entertained classmates at Wood Acres Elementary and Pyle Middle schools and, later, at Georgetown Prep (Booster Club president, varsity letter for cheering) and at Harvard (Hasty Pudding president). There were tap dancing lessons, even a little ballet, along the way.

As a tweenager, “he registered at the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts, what is now Imagination Stage, without even telling me,” says his Colombian-born mom, Maria Luisa “Tini” Rocca. “He just came home and said, ‘Give me a check!’ So I did. It was a good thing.”

After post-graduation study of kabuki theater in Japan and a brief stay at home (waiting tables), he moved to New York in 1992. Soon enough, road-company theater gigs and friends who knew friends welcomed him into a world that, in turn, offered opportunities in television.

Rocca says he “really learned to write” when he worked on “Wishbone” in Dallas, a children’s show on PBS about a Jack Russell terrier whose daydreams followed story lines of classic literature.

“I was always good at parodies, but making H.G. Wells’s ‘Time Machine’ accessible to 6-to-11-year-olds requires great effort,” he says. “A plot needs to keep moving forward. Shouldn’t all narrative do that?”

His unlikely career in food television began eight years ago, when a friendly acquaintance with Food Network Vice President Bob Tuchman led to 10 appearances as a guest judge on “Iron Chef America,” seated next to Jeffrey Steingarten. Where Rocca the rookie might have been chewed up and spat out like so much gristly Secret Ingredient, he and the famous food writer got along like pals. “I was convinced there should be an animated version of him and me as Sherman and Peabody — a nod to the early ’60s ‘Bullwinkle’ cartoon characters,” he says. Unlike his fellow panelists, Rocca ate all of every dish placed before him. And he knew how to deliver a good line.

“One thing I said that never got appropriate acknowledgement, I thought, was during Battle Opa,” Rocca says. “I think my comment was ‘The only way this Opa would have been better was if it had been served with its best friend, Kale.’ Went right over everyone’s head.”

Next came an offer to host the network’s “Food(ography)” series: 39 episodes over 11 / 2 years. Relating history, recognizing food’s significance, interviewing people on camera were all skills of Rocca’s that he put to good use. He got to know food celebrities but didn’t hang out with them.

“Paula Deen follows me on Twitter,” he says with conviction.

Rocca had previously pitched his idea for a show that featured older generations teaching the younger ones how to cook family dishes. With some Mo-mentum behind it, the second pitch got the green light once the Cooking Channel begain airing more original programming.

The Sundays of Rocca’s youth were spent at his grandmother’s apartment across from the National Cathedral, where great Italian meals came out of a tiny kitchen. Guilt, he claims, inspired “My Grandmother’s Ravioli.” He didn’t realize how good the gravy was until it was gone. But he has become savvy about what makes good television.

“He is who he is, on camera and off,” says Gideon Evans, the executive producer at the Cooking Channel who first worked with Rocca on “The Daily Show” in 2000. “A complete original. A good conversationalist. We have similar sensibilities in that ‘MGR’ was supposed to be about bringing out characters, not a cooking show about ingredients.”

Neither of them wanted to produce reality television. Rocca makes a serious pruny face when he speaks of “The Real Housewives” of anywhere. “Soul-crushing. They are viragos in the worst sense of that word,” he says. Instead, a casting call went out to find home cooks who didn’t necessarily want to be famous and didn’t know who the heck he was. Some were relatives of friends, some were found through food blogs.

Evans recalls the auditions with glee. “We held them at CBS, which is at 57th and 11th. The waiting room in this big office building was filled with a sea of elderly men and women, all with Tupperware containers,” examples of their cooking, on their laps. The ones who got callbacks exhibited what Rocca calls a strong sense of self.

In the first season’s 13 episodes, production was restricted to subjects who live in the New York tri-state area. Rocca has seen the audition footage but meets the cooks only when shooting gets underway. A crew of 10 is small compared with the team needed to produce Bravo’s “Top Chef,” but it can create cramped conditions in someone’s home over the course of two days and close to 24 hours of raw footage.

The end result has its charms, and its shtick: 20 minutes of Rocca engaging his host, making jokes at no one’s expense, taking instruction on how to extract the bite out of sliced onion, season jerk chicken or pronounce “kreplach.” It’s Master and Grasshopper — a reference to the mid-’70s TV show “Kung Fu” that Rocca gets immediately.

The day after our interview and dinner at Mintwood, Rocca heads to Potomac, where he has agreed to a “Grandmother’s Ravioli”-type session with a local senior citizen. Who knows? Maybe casting for next season’s episodes will start in his hometown. He meets Helene Mankowitz, a stylin’ 71-year-old retired makeup artist whose offspring are happy to let her do the cooking. Her grandchildren call her “M.” She greets Mo with her picture-perfect signature apple crumble pie and coffee.

The dish du jour is chicken and egg noodles. It is close to her heart. Simple, one-pot comfort food. Her late mother learned to make it as a young Romanian child transplanted to Reading, in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Mankowitz has committed the recipe to memory only, so she’s nervous about measuring this and that.

Within minutes, they have struck up a playfully antagonistic rapport. She teaches him how to chop celery. He looks for approval. A dialogue sampler:

She: You know, I’m a potter.

He: Did you love the movie “Ghost”?

She: It doesn’t work like that for me.

He (hands not on the just-poached chicken): I’ve never dealt with a chicken like this. It’s very cathartic.

She (actually dismantling the chicken, pointing to the flap of skin and bone at its tail end): My mother called this the pupik.

He: The badonkadonk!

She: That’s not Yiddish, is it?

About an hour later, the pair has tasted from the pot and adjusted the seasoning. Rocca would push for more black pepper, but this is not his show. He praises the tenderness of the meat and the texture of the noodles and carrot coins; Mankowitz needs to get off her feet. The back-and-forthing has reached a more intimate, supportive level. It would warm the cockles of the toughest customer. It would make good television.

Rocca will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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