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.”