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.