With young and creative chef Matthew Heaggans at the helm, dining at The Rossi can be a gamble. Order right, and expect a big payoff.
Story by Beth Stallings
Since its opening, The Rossi has been a stalwart of the Short North. As the neighborhood continues to shape and shift up and down High Street, (for better or worse, depending on whom you ask), this not-quite-fancy, not-quite-dive restaurant with its beacon-like neon red sign has rarely failed.
Diners come for perpetually sound go-tos like New York-style pizza topped with bite-size pepperoni that crisp and curl into little bowls as they cook, Grilled Ham & Gruyere sandwiches ($12), a ricotta meatball ($9) smothered in chunky arrabiata sauce, and Caesar salads wrapped in salty prosciutto ($7/$12). All still as good as ever.
Owners Tina and Randy Corbin (Philco, Club 185, Little Palace, El Camino Inn) could do nothing but mop and dust The Rossi space for the next decade and it still wouldn’t feel out of date. That’s mostly thanks to oversized light fixtures with dim bulbs that cast a cozy filter over the L-shaped space, and a behemoth wooden art deco barback that I never tire of admiring. (It also makes the bar the best seat in the house. Its unencumbered view of the kitchen, friendly bartenders quick with a drink recommendation—like spicy-sweet-bitter Petal Paloma ($10)—and addictive bar snacks are the other pluses.)
Sure, every regular has a tale of an oversalted dish or an aloof server, but a misstep here and there was always more of a forgivable oddity than a trend. But with a new chef at the helm—Matthew Heaggans, most recently chef de cuisine at Flatiron—The Rossi is on shakier ground.
This is not what I had hoped to write. When Heaggans took over the kitchen this summer, my first reaction was: What a perfect fit. Heaggans has never been one to hold back, sometimes to a fault, when it comes to inventiveness (his Instagram is fun to follow for a glimpse into dish testing). Creativity, especially in the menu’s entree section and in nightly specials, has long been present at The Rossi. Former longtime chef Andrew Smith (now helming the kitchen at Rockmill Tavern) set the precedent. Heaggans, I hoped, would carry on the tradition.
But his enthusiasm, which makes the menu a great read, doesn’t always translate to the plate. Dishes often lack refinement, like a writer without an editor. Take the Piri Piri Roast Gerber Chicken ($22) entree. There are bright spots in this dish—chicken so moist inside it’s as if it’s been velveted, and the skin has a great char. But the glowing-red piri piri sauce drizzled over the sliced half chicken falls flat without enough of the chili bite that defines this Portuguese sauce. And the shaved Brussels slaw with boiled peanuts was limp and unexciting as a dog rolling over to play dead. It needed more citrus and salt, something to play the proper counterpart to the chicken.
The chicken entree remained on the menu after the transition to fall. I wish some version of the Confit Cod ($17) had stuck around, too. It was an elegant dish—oil-poached white fish that cut like softened butter, melting into a savory carrot nuoc cham, more broth than dipping sauce. A griddled sticky rice patty offered a pleasant crunchy foil to the tender components.
If only the kitchen had played closer attention to variety of texture on entrees that are new to the fall menu. Without the right sear to bookend Seared Hokkaido Scallops ($27), the dish with grilled squash, chorizo and brown butter emulsion was all mush. Honey Roasted Beet ($9/$16) had the same flaw: flabby strips of beets languished atop undercooked—crunchy, not al dente—risotto, and the promised za’atar was sprinkled on top like an afterthought.
Those who remember Heaggans during his year running pop-up restaurant Bebe at the Hey Hey in Merion Village will recall his penchant for chocolate pasta. I was a fan of his version there—cavatelli smothered in a braised beef that was bitter, slightly sweet and savory in the way of a hearty stew—even if it wasn’t all that appealing to the eye. He promised the chocolate gnocchi served with the Seared Duck Breast ($22) entree was his aria, his chocolate pasta perfected. But the heavy lumps of brown dough lacked flavor (sweet, bitter or otherwise) and the pillowy bounce that makes eating gnocchi pleasurable.
Cocoa is a tough ingredient to work with. Too much cocoa will dry out pasta dough, leaving it brittle. Heaggans uses a stracciatella technique, flaking chocolate into the dough. He wanted to cut down on the bitterness, but ends up stripping away all the flavor. It’s a shame because the duck was cooked well inside, though it could have used a stronger crisp on the skin. And the lightly pickled onions and adorable baby turnips were as enjoyable to eat as they were to look at. This plate has potential to soar—if not for the gnocchi weighing it down.
When Heaggans cooks the food he likes to eat (he told me he’s been eating at Fortune a lot, one reason why Sichuan elements pop up in a few places at The Rossi) or when he incorporates the flavors of his Southern family roots (like his Fried Gerber Chicken Sandwich ($13) with hot honey), his dishes are bold, interesting, and memorable. I can still taste Heaggans’ pork coppa with grilled grapefruit at Flatiron, and his twice-cooked wings with apple cider glaze and house togarashi at Bebe. There’s a level of honesty and authenticity to these plates that many of the current Rossi dishes lack. But not all of them.
Crispy Chickpeas ($5), from the bar snacks menu, are lemony and salty and as satisfying as French fries. I ate nearly an entire order by myself. The Sichuan Cucumber Salad ($5), also on the bar snacks menu, is a refreshing starter that earns high marks for heat complexity, walking that taut tightrope between tingling tongue and numb taste buds, the signature trait of Sichuan peppercorns.
I’d order the Bo Ssam ($28) again for the built-in entertainment and the sauces, a nutty sesame puree and a toned-down Korean-style barbecue sauce (Heaggans adds a smidge of maple syrup for balance, a nice touch). Traditionally, the star of this assembly-required Korean barbecue dish is pork shoulder. But Heaggans updates the classic with a monstrous pork shank, braised until falling off the bone. You can stuff this tender meat into accompanying steam buns or make lettuce wraps out of a mound of bibb lettuce. House pickles were crisp and biting with vinegar, a wonderful contrast. It is a lot of food, so order one for the table to share. And pair it with a glass of Smith & Hook ($12/glass), a medium-bodied cabernet sauvignon from California’s Central Coast that’s interesting without being overpowering, and one of the best by-the-glass offerings on The Rossi’s notable wine list.
Whatever you do, start dinner with the Duck Potstickers ($10) appetizer, four crimped dumplings stuffed with ground duck and foie gras settled in a complex broth with sesame, chili, chopped celery and salted and dried peaches. Every bite pops in a different place on the palate—sour, bitter, umami.
It’s the dish Heaggans is most pleased with, and he should be. It’s a great one. He’s driven to do something different, and for that, I will always give Heaggans’ food a try. Because when he’s on, he’s on. I just wish eating his food wasn’t such a gamble.
895 N. High St., Short North
Hours: Dinner, 4-10 p.m. Mon-Wed, 4-11 p.m. Thu-Fri, 5-11 p.m. Sat, 5-10 p.m. Sun
Late night, 10-11 p.m. Mon-Wed, 11 p.m.-1 a.m. Thu-Fri, 11 p.m.-1 a.m. Sat, 10-11 p.m. Sun
Bar, 4 p.m.-midnight, Mon-Wed, 4 p.m-2 a.m. Thu-Sat, 5-11 p.m. Sun
Happy hour, 4-6 p.m. Mon-Fri
Recommended: Bar snacks, Duck Potsticker appetizer, Bo Ssam entree, and all the menu mainstays, including New York-style pizza, The Rossi Burger, Burrata and Chef’s Plate
Rating: 1 out of 4 stars
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