For 13 years, 21 Midland Avenue was home to Osteria Giotto. When doors closed in 2016, a hole was left in the hearts — and stomachs — of their dedicated customers. Whether it be their classic lasagna, cavatelli, or risotto, customers longed for their favorite dishes. However, Robert Pantusa, former chef and owner of Osteria Giotto, brought these dishes back to the Montclair community in 2020 with his new restaurant, La Rocca. Through a pandemic and life celebrations, the La Rocca family has been an important part of the Montclair community. The MG Team got a chance to sit down with the owners to learn more about the restaurant, the food, and of course the location. Read on to learn more about this unique Italian restaurant in Montclair.
Returning to 21 Midland Avenue
La Rocca opened its doors in February 2020 at 21 Midland Avenue, the former home of Osteria Giotto. Robert Pantusa, the owner and chef of La Rocca, closed Osteria Giotto in 2016 with his former partner Luca Valerin because they needed a “break” and were “burnt out,” Robert’s wife Caroline Clarke told The Montclair Girl.
The former partners opened Cafe Giotto, located on Church Street in 2017, following a break from the Montclair restaurant scene. When it opened, Cafe Giotto started with serving pastries, sandwiches, and soups, going for a more cafe environment in comparison to their previous dinning type of restaurant.
Caroline shared with The Montclair Girl that Osteria Giotto regulars often came into the cafe asking if the chefs could make Osteria Giotto signature dishes, like their risotto, even though it wasn’t on the menu, and sometimes they did.
When Bluff City BBQ closed, there was an opportunity to return to their former kitchen. Robert and Luca decided to end their partnership and proceed with their restaurants — Robert with La Rocca and Luca with Cafe Giotto.
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While Caroline and current La Rocca manager, Joanne Berlangieri, said the cafe was “amazing,” they said were elements of the previous restaurant they simply missed. For Robert in particular, it was the size of the kitchen he missed, Caroline told us.
“Robert, professionally, I think, missed the kitchen,” Caroline, the chef’s wife said. “You know, [Robert] loves to cook and it was very limited for him and I think he needed space to work.”
Cafe Giotto, “wasn’t meant to be,” for the La Rocca owners and many regular Osteria Giotto customers missed the dining experience, Caroline said.
Caroline and Joanne recalled the last night Giotto was opened and how no one wanted to “say goodbye,” Joanne said.
“I don’t think we got home until like 4AM that night, the last night here, because this just kept going and no one wanted to say goodbye or leave,” Joanne said.
Caroline went through Osteria Giotto’s old reservation book to contact former customers about the opening of La Rocca and word “got out fast” about the opening, she shared. The reaction from the community about the opening and having former regular customers book reservations was “emotional” and “gratifying.”
The La Rocca team was happy to come back to their former home.
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“The vibe is really warm and friendly [on Midland Avenue],” Caroline said. “It was wonderful coming back to the summer scene on Midland, you know, because just the lovely atmosphere with the tables outside and the candles and the lights and the hours… I think it really is a really special spot.”
The opening of La Rocca was an exciting time not only for the owners and staff but also for their former customers. To this day, customers still come into La Rocca expressing their delight to see their favorite recipes return to Midland Avenue.
“It was great [re-opening] after so much kind of trepidation and just working to get the place up and running,” Caroline said. “And then just to feel the love and to have people walk through the door and like say, ‘I’m home’ because it was always their favorite place.”
Opening of La Rocca Meets Covid-19
Soon after La Rocca opened in February 2020, they had to shut down because of the pandemic. But Covid-19 didn’t stop the La Rocca team from sharing their dishes.
Throughout the pandemic, La Rocca continued with takeout and also started doing delivery.
“[The restaurant] turned into from one night of full service from [the] phone ringing off the wall to okay, tomorrow we’re gonna do takeout and delivery,” La Rocca’s manager, Joanne Berlangieri said. “We jumped right into it.”
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Caroline felt “supported” and that the Montclair community was “rooting” for La Rocca’s success during the pandemic, she said.
“What I love is that people will often say, ‘oh my god, you helped us through COVID. It was the highlight of our week, you know, like Friday night take out,’” Caroline said.
Joanne recalled a customer telling her that La Rocca delivery meant more than just getting his favorite dish.
“He said the only other human that he saw during the pandemic was his delivery boy” Joanne said. “He couldn’t wait every Friday to see his delivery boy.”
Behind the Name
When the owners decided to open a new restaurant at the Midland Avenue location, they needed to come up with a new name for the restaurant. Get ready to feel those heartstring tugs — the name pays homage to the owners’ love story.
“When we were thinking about a name, we wanted something from that time in our lives where we were young and totally in love with Italy and just in love with the town that we were living in,” Caroline said.
After Robert, chef of La Rocca and Clark’s husband, graduated from Johnson + Wales University in Rhode Island, he headed to Italy, where he learned all the Northern Italian dishes he cooks today.
He lived in Imola, a town located in Central Nothern Italy. At the time, Caroline was living there too, and was teaching. The two met in this Italian town and fell in love.
In the center of Imola, there was a medieval castle called, you guessed it, La Rocca. The rest is history.
MG pro tip: When you enter the restaurant to check in, there is a picture behind the table, which is a map of La Rocca. The picture is easy to miss, but definitely look out for it when you visit the restaurant to immerse yourself in the La Rocca experience.
When you walk in, you’ll most likely be greeted by Joanne Berlangieri, who will check you in and bring you to your table. Whether you’re planning to go at 5:30PM, 7:30PM, or 9PM, La Rocca is always packed.
Walking to your table, whether inside or outside behind the french doors, you’ll feel the romance of Italy through the wooden tables and chairs, dimmed lighting met with candlelight and decorative roses on the tables.
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On the menu is an array of Italian dishes. From pastas to fish to meat, La Rocca has it all. While the chefs prepare your meal, a basket of homemade breads is brought to you, and before you realize it, you’ll be asking for another basket. La Rocca’s homemade bread is the perfect introduction to the attention they give to freshness and ingredients when preparing their dishes.
The calamari appetizer was perfectly crispy, but the best part was the unique basket the calamari was in — a potato basket! If you’re still craving something munchy after finishing your app, you can literally eat the basket.
The cavatelli, tagliatelle, halibut, risotto, and lasagna are the best-selling dishes at La Rocca, according to the owners.
The food can be described as “simple” Italian food with “good quality” ingredients, Caroline said.
“The fact that we make our own bread, we make our own pasta, we make our own gelato, all our own desserts… nothing, nothing is brought in,” she said. “And I think the fact that the owner is also the chef and he’s on the line cooking [makes us special].”
If you are up for dessert, make sure to order their tiramisu. It’s memorable and mouth-watering — even if you feel you can’t eat anymore, make room. Trust us, you won’t regret it.
La Rocca manager, Joanne Berlangieri, describes the staff as “family.”
“Everyone really works together and when we’re busy and the stuff is hitting the fan, like everything just works,” she said. “I’d like to be a fly on the wall sometimes to see it was how it all works.”
From the moment you enter the restaurant at 21 Midland Avenue, to the moment you leave, you too will feel like part of this family.