A couple of days after returning to Florence I was invited by a friend to visit her new apartment near Piazza Santa Croce. When I arrived I was greeted with a tour of the flat, which soon enough led me to the kitchen. Upon entering I was immediately struck by an overwhelming sense of déjà-vu. I stopped and stood there for several moments trying to understand when I could have possibly been in this apartment before, despite being unable to recall having ever even walked down this particular street. Then it hit me: I was standing in David Rocco’s kitchen! It turned out the apartment belonged to David’s sister Maria, who also happened to be my friend’s boss. They simply used the apartment one month out of the year to tape the series. Until a few days earlier I’d never even heard of David Rocco, but my friend’s roommate was Canadian and explained that he was a former model and something of a household name in that country.
Over the ensuing months the Dolce Vita apartment became a gathering point for all the characters in our own lives, just like the principal set of any classic sitcom. My friend had a few promo DVDs from the series, which we sometimes watched to further enhance the surreal experience (imagine watching an episode of Seinfeld on Jerry’s couch). We enjoyed long Sunday lunches at the dinner table, and casual gatherings in the kitchen, around the marble-topped work surface upon which Rocco tosses his insalata. “Casa Rocco” – as it was soon dubbed – was also the scene of Thanksgiving dinners and memorable parties, including the evening of my 27th birthday and an ambitious Breakfast At Tiffany’s-themed night of debauchery. One night, after snooping around in the drawer which contained an impressive array of spatulas and mysterious utensils, another friend badly sprained her ankle on the kitchen floor, right where Rocco stands to drain his pasta. She had to be carried out of the apartment by paramedics on a stretcher, and spent the next month living at Casa Rocco with her leg in a plaster cast.
When Rocco and the crew arrived to shoot the new series, my friend was forced to move out for the entire month of May. One day I happened to visit the set: the apartment was crammed with lighting equipment and cables, but I missed out on meeting David. I even attended Maria Rocco’s wedding reception in the Florentine hills as my friend’s plus-one, but he wasn’t there either. Eventually, my friend moved out and the Casa Rocco era came to an abrupt end, but she did give me a watch she found abandoned on the set that I still wear to this day.
I hadn’t given David Rocco or his Dolce Vita much thought since, until I recently stumbled across an episode on the fledgling cable network Cooking Channel (751 on Time Warner Cable HD). I learned that the show is in its fifth series and has even spawned a book and a soundtrack, so it seemed like a good time to reacquaint myself.
Of course, there is something very obvious about calling a show about Italian cooking “Dolce Vita”. For the title of his 1960 film, Fellini employed the term “La Dolce Vita” with a generous dose of irony. It was meant to suggest a shallow life of excess, one which was ultimately bereft of meaning or direction — a commentary on the loss of traditional values in postwar Italy and the problems facing a new generation in the 1950s. We can forgive David Rocco for appropriating the overused phrase for his own show, and for predictably applying it in its broader cultural sense, that is, to suggest the most pleasurable aspects of Italian life. Naturally, we’re also treated to regular sweeping postcard panoramas of Renaissance architecture. But despite these corny marketing tools, the show is keen to convey a sense of Florence beyond tourism.
For the most part Rocco’s life does indeed appear exceedingly pleasureful, almost like an Italian take on a yuppie lifestyle. He drinks espresso, shops for food (and shoes), goes jogging, cooks dinner for his friends and spends weekends in Chianti with his wife, Nina, who plays herself. This apparent domestic bliss notwithstanding, the ever simpatico Rocco still seems to live the life of a carefree metrosexual bachelor. If the incessant aperitivo soundtrack is anything to go by, his is a world forever on the cusp of happy hour.
While not trained in the kitchen (“I’m not a cook – I’m Italian,” he says) Rocco certainly makes cooking look fun, and perhaps more importantly, effortless. His recipes center around the “cucina povera” or peasant food which provides the classic staples of Italian family life. Incorporating simple, fresh ingredients, our host presents many of his dishes as having been handed down by a relative (many are named after the “nonna” or “zia” who came up with them). Despite an affected habit of calling everyone he meets “Ciccio” and the mystifying employment of an electric golf cart to get about town (surely a Vespa would have been more accurate and appealing), Rocco’s own knowledge of Italian cuisine and culture is exemplary and the clichés which litter most depictions of Italian-Americans on our TV screens are here refreshingly absent.
Though hardly fellini-esque in either its scope or atmosphere, David Rocco’s Dolce Vita has more in common with the Fellini classic from whose title it borrows than is initially apparent. Episodic in nature, part reality and part fiction, for a cooking show it defies categorization. As the ad-hoc script swings back and forth between plot development and cooking demonstrations, Rocco himself regularly “breaks the fourth wall” to address the viewer directly. Meanwhile, the often improvised dialogue shuffles between Italian and English in a manner which only rarely becomes disorientating. Faced with the tricky task of often conversing with Italians for an English-speaking audience, the bilingual Canadian has been known to use both languages even in the same sentence. The cast is completed by Rocco’s own circus of eccentric “friends” who flesh out the episodes’ loose plotlines. Some play themselves, or versions of themselves, while others are entirely fictionalized characters. I find myself recognizing many of Rocco’s on-screen buddies (one of them, Max — an anglicization of his real name — was a former roommate of mine). Here we can begin to draw parallels with La Dolce Vita, for which Fellini cluttered the screen with actors and non-actors of various nationalities. The star of that film, Marcello Mastroianni, was intrigued by the multi-layered nature of cinema, and possessed an attitude to acting which began to stretch the boundaries of performance and reality. In his 1993 biography of the actor Donald Dewey describes Mastroianni’s approach as being founded upon the double fantasy role: that of the character being portrayed for the project in question and that of the actor working as a performer on the “adult playground” of the film set.
In 2005 Casa Rocco became an unlikely refuge from my own domestic frustrations and romantic melodramas. Watching David Rocco’s Dolce Vita on television now in New York – from the safety of several years and several thousand miles – is an altogether more complex sensation. I’m not particularly nostalgic about the years I spent in Florence — while I loved the city and fully basked in all of its wonders I have not forgotten the common frustrations of daily life in Italy, nor the challenges faced in attempting to pursue a more serious life there. Yet as the camera caresses the view from Piazzale Michelangelo, before focusing on Rocco as he dashes around the centro storico, I’m persistently prodded by recollections of my own experiences among Florence’s rain-soaked cobbled streets. It’s highly amusing to think back on evenings spent in Rocco’s kitchen, and even the bars and shops he frequents are those which I came to know well: Capocaccia, Chiaroscuro, Procacci, Semolina, Giubbe Rosse, Hotel Continentale and of course, the Dolce Vita bar in Piazza del Carmine are all given ample screen time. In a surprising twist on art imitating life (or is it vice-versa?), the perhaps inevitable consequence is that this Canadian cooking show has become a means of (re)living a vicarious and fictionalized version of my life in Florence. Though I’m still uncertain whether seeing your life (or a close approximation of it) on television makes it seem more, or less, real. In both his elaborate reconstruction of Rome at Cinecittà and the dreamlike fantasy sequences for which he became associated, Fellini too was inclined to suggest that reality could always be improved upon. Maybe that’s why David Rocco’s Dolce Vita somehow feels even better than the real thing.