by Mike Corrigan

Submitted for your edification: The building at 520 W. Main Ave. that has housed Rocky Rococo for the past 18 years was once an early 20th-century movie theater called the Ritz. Remnants of the old theater's motion picture glory days can still be spotted high above the dining room where cutouts of Golden Age Hollywood stars gaze out on 21st-century diners below. The old building's Mediterranean architectural appointments have been largely preserved and fit nicely with the theme of a pizzeria, which, when you get right down to it, is exactly what Rocky Rococo is. Oh sure, the restaurant also has -- and highly touts -- its pasta menu, but it's always the pies we come for, Rocky. Bring on dose hotsa pizza pies.

A red-green color scheme, warm hardwoods and low lighting augment the restaurant's cavernous yet cozy atmosphere. It's roomy in here, giving diners the option to congregate in wide booths or slip away into dark nooks for a more solitary lunchtime repose. Large groups and parties are easily accommodated. It also bears mentioning that the staff here is remarkably cheerful and, best of all, efficient.

Rocky's specializes in pan-style or "deep-dish" pizza (though you can also get them with thin crust). They bring them out in rectangular black iron pans and cut 'em up in slabs. A "slice" -- a sturdy three-by-six-inch brick of crunchy, chewy crust topped with a sweet and tangy sauce, melted cheese, and your choice of toppings -- is almost a meal in itself. Rocky's specialty pies include the Hawaiian; the all-veggie Garden of Eatin'; and the Uncle Sal's Spectacular, with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, sliced tomatoes and oregano. (Depending on size, Rocky's pizzas are in the $11-to-$20 range.)

Although Rocky Rococo is open for lunch and dinner, it's those terrifically economical combinations that make this a perfect place to pick up a slice and a side to satiate that mid-day urge -- without blowing your lunch allowance for the entire week. Highly recommended are the daily specials (all around $6), which combine pizza or breadsticks with a salad bar trip and a soda for a very little coin. The No. 3 includes a trip to the salad bar and a medium soda along with your choice of a regular pizza slice. The No. 2 special comes with breadsticks, salad bar and soda. Either one is a meal that will stick with you pretty much all day, particularly if you -- like me -- are a master at the fine art of single-trip salad bowl stuffing. Feeling strictly vegetarian? There's an unlimited salad bar, too.

"The all-you-can-eat salad bar is definitely our most popular item for lunch," says manager Seth Hurley, who further claims, "It's the best in downtown."

Rocky's salad bar is indeed impressive and usually well maintained -- even during the lunch rush when things can get a little frenzied. The lettuce is a mix of romaine and iceberg. But that's only the beginning, as your trip also involves choosing from more than 40 different toppings, sides and dressings including all manner of raw veggies, two kinds of pasta salad, potato salad, bean salad, cottage cheese at least a couple of fresh fruit offerings. There's also a hot soup pot and a nacho bar. The ingredients are uniformly fresh and of high overall quality. I've experienced the occasional stale corn chip from the nacho bar, but that's about it.

On a recent trip, Team Inlander sort of shot the works, landing a couple of slice-and-salad combos (with hunks of Garden of Eatin' and Uncle Sal's), a small rotini pasta and an order of breadsticks.

The Garden of Eatin' pizza, though unfortunately named, is a delicious blend of cheese, onions, peppers and tomatoes on top of a whole wheat crust. The crust is thick and soft but not doughy, with a wonderfully crispy exterior (especially when you get that coveted edge piece). With the Uncle Sal's slice, you get two thick wafers of sausage and an unknown number of pepperoni slices buried under the other ingredients (mushrooms, onions, sliced tomatoes). It's savory as sin and strikes a nice flavor balance between meat and veggie.

From the four pasta-sauce choices (which also include meat, marinara and alfredo), we went with the broccoli alfredo on our rotini. The "small" portion was actually quite large, with rotini that was tender (not overdone) and broccoli that was pleasantly fresh. Unfortunately the sauce was rather soupy and bland. (Note to self: Next time, pick the marinara.)

Finally, despite the fact that Rocky Rococo serves its breadsticks in a large beverage cup, there's nothing average about these treats. The sticks are a good, solid interpretation of a pizza parlor standard -- light yet firm, with a hint of garlic and butter. Dipping them in the accompanying marinara sauce produced exactly what we were looking for (the thing that keeps us coming back): No bells, no whistles -- just yum.

Publication date: 03/10/05

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