Interview: Peter Della Rocca

Brooklyn Native Peter Della Rocca continues a century old family tradition of classic Italian cuisine from Naples, Italy, to Naples, Florida.

By Palmer Hasty

Brooklyn native Peter Della Rocca’s Italian cooking heritage goes way back to 1894, when his great grandparents Ana and Dominick Sorvino landed at Ellis Island from Naples, Italy.

The Sorvinos settled in Brooklyn, and within a year started what became a proud, long standing family tradition of rustic Italian cooking served in their Brooklyn restaurants.  A tradition for over a hundred years that the Sorvino’s great grandson Peter Della Rocca continues today in Naples, Florida, with his popular family style Italian restaurant Parmesan Pete’s. Della Rocca also operates a very successful, high-end private catering service in Naples called Peter’s Cuisine. Della Rocca was born in Brooklyn in 1960 on Coney Island Avenue and Church Avenue just south of Prospect Park.

BE: What was your Brooklyn childhood like?

PDR: Like other Brooklyn kids we he played stick ball, stoop  ball, and a rough and tumble children’s game called Johnny-On-A-Pony-Buck-Buck. We played all those games that were common for Brooklyn kids to play, especially since there were so many Brownstones with stoops, so stoop ball was probably the most common.”

BE: What can you tell us about the family restaurant called Pete’s that was on Mytle Avenue for so long?

PDR: “I remember we cut through Prospect Park and came out on the other side on our way to Myrtle Avenue. I was just a child running around the restaurant. Just like my grand kids do now at my restaurant in Naples.”

BE: So you’ve been working within a close-knit family restaurant business virtualy all your life?

Parmesan Pete’s Sea Scallops.

PDR: “Yes, I guess you could say that. When my grandparents were still alive, the restaurants were open 364 days a year. The only day we closed was Christmas. That’s when the whole family would go back down to the restaurant to have our Christmas together. There would always be about 35 or 40 of us. My grandparents, Rachella and Pietro Della Rocca had five siblings. So there were five of them with all their kids and their kid’s kids, so yea, we had a very large family.”

BE: Can you give us some history of the restaurant itself?

PDR: “Through the years the family restaurant has used Ana Sorvino’s original recipes as the culinary inspiration. It was taken over by each subsequent generation. Prior to the Myrtle Avenue location where the restaurant remained as Pete’s for so many years, it was located respectively in Coney Island and the Brooklyn Navy Yard district during the early decades of the 20th century.
In the 1970s my father and uncle (Dominick and Alphonse respectively) moved the restaurant to Bay Ridge and changed the name to Della Rocca’s, where it remained until it finally closed in 1986.”

BE: Where did you go to school?

PDR: “I went to grammar school at the Berkeley Institute near Grand Army Plaza, then attended the Eastern Military Academy in Huntington, Long Island for two years. When I was 14 I started working in the restaurant in Bay Ridge. Since I was only 14, they made me a bus boy. I went to Fort Hamilton High School and not very long after graduation when I was 17 I was promoted to the kitchen where I began learning my culinary skill from Uncle Alphonse.

Parmesan Pete’s Burrata Pie.

I worked with Alphonse in the kitchen at Della Rocca’s for about 10 years. When I was 29 I got married and decided I wanted my own restaurant. So my wife Maria and I moved to Cranford, New Jersey. We lived in Cranford for about 14 years, which is about as long as I’ve now been living in Naples.”

BE: How was New Jersey?

PDR: “I loved New Jersey. We were just starting to have children. I thought it would be better than Brooklyn at the time, and we (Della Rocca laughed), of course skipped right over Staten Island.”

BE: Did you start opening restaurants immediately?

PDR: “I had two Italian restaurants in Jersey. The first one in Somerville, and the second one in Edison. With the first restaurant I was co-owner and executive chef. It was actually an upscale pasta house called Tufoli that we opened in 1993. After a couple of years I wanted my own restaurant, so I left the partnership and opened my own restaurant in Edison and called it Alegro. I did what I call contemporary Italian, as opposed to traditional classic Italian. All the ingredients were Italian, but from the culinary perspective, I just wanted to be more creative, out of the box so to speak.” (Note: Both of Della Rocca’s restaurants in New Jersey got great reviews and high ratings from the New York Times and Zagat’s.)

BE: How did you land in Naples, Florida?

PDR: In 1998, two years before I moved to Naples, I opened Dellarocca’s Italian Deli and Catering in Westfield, New Jersey. I sold the Deli and Catering business two years later.
A close friend of mine in New Jersey had bought a restaurant in Naples. “My friend had just opened a restaurant in Naples and he needed someone to run his kitchen. He moved me and my family down here and since I had just sold my business, I wanted to try something new.”

During his fist five years in Naples Della Rocca worked as executive chef at Tre Amici, a fine dining Italian restaurant in Naples. Nevertheless, owning another catering business or his own restaurant again was never far from Della Rocca’s mind after settling in Naples.

Peter’s Cuisine Lamb Chops.

BE: How did you get started toward your goal of opening your restaurant in Naples?

PDR: In 2006 I located a 1400 square-foot space in Bonita Springs. I thought it would be perfect space for the supplies and prep work needed for a catering business. I rented the building for two years and created his my catering business. Things were real good then, that’s when the economy was thriving. Businesses were booming, it was just a great time to start your own business…that’s when I jumped into catering.”

BE: Della Rocca continued.

PDR: “After setting up the space for the high end catering business I called Peter’s Cuisine, I also started doing the traditional Italian food, based on our family recipes, which I’m doing now at Parmesan Pete’s. But at that time it was take out only….until I found this space in Naples. So now I operate both Peter’s Cuisine and the traditional Parmesan Pete’s from the same location.”

With Peter’s Cuisine and Parmesan Pete’s, Della Rocca was then serving the Naples and Bonita Springs area high-end creative Italian cuisine and specialties like Sushi with the private catering service, as well as the more rustic, traditional Italian dishes that carry on his family legacy of recipes going back through Brooklyn and all the way back to Naples, Italy during late 1800s.

BE: So everything is working out as planned?

PDR: “I can’t complain. We have a lot of regular customers, and Naples is a great tourist attraction, so people from all over visit the restaurant. And we do pretty well on Trip Advisor and Yelp, but then, I’m am always working on trying to reach zero complaints.”

When Della Rocca says the restaurant is doing pretty good on Trip Advisor, he wasn’t kidding. Within two years of opening Parmesan Pete’s, he has already received an Award of Excellence from the heavily trafficked Restaurant Review site.

BE: Earlier you mentioned getting involved with the community is also a family tradition. Are you doing that in Naples?

PDR: “Yes. Now that I’ve had a little success here and I have more time now I’m interested in creating a Community Mayors chapter in Naples. My father Dominick was born and raised in the Brooklyn Navy Yard District, ran the restaurant in Bay Ridge, and was also well known throughout Brooklyn for his extensive charity work via an organization he founded called Community Mayors.

Community Mayors organized popular recreational events for handicapped and special needs children in locations like Shea Stadium, Kennedy Airport, Coney Island, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and the Bronx Zoo. With support from celebrities like Frank Sinatra and with members like former New York Mayor Rudi Giullani, Community Mayors impacted the lives of literally millions of disadvantaged children. My sister Shelley Della Rocca Aprea is now CEO of the Community Mayors in New York. I am thinking maybe I can talk her into moving down here and helping me with setting up Community Mayors here.”

Parmesan Pete logo.

BE: You’re also carrying on a family tradition by still using the original Pete’s logo, right?

PDR: “The registered logo I use for Parmesan Pete’s is 100 years old. Originally that was Pete’s logo.” (With his characteristic modesty, Della Rocca laughed and said) “That particular logo has been in my family for a very long time, I just added the Parmesan.”

All photos courtesy of Peter Della Rocca.