Last October 10th, after a $1.5 million renovation of the existing space, Bocca opened its doors for the first time, and customers poured in. Less than three weeks later, thanks to an uninvited guest named Sandy, tons of water and sand bombarded the place.
“We had rented fridge and freezer trucks to store all our product in,” chef Robert Pappas told me after my visits. “We sandbagged the front of the restaurant, but there was water up to the windows outside.”
Even so, Bocca Coal-Fired Bistro (its full name) was relatively lucky. Thanks to a hard-working staff and a professional clean-up crew booked days ahead of the superstorm, “We reopened in a day and a half,” Pappas said. “It was just the bar at first, serving drinks to locals who stayed, first responders and medics.”
Bocca’s owners, Lou Freedman, a longtime local, and Ron Citta, pitched in—Freedman tending bar, Citta waiting tables. “The next night we had pizza,” Pappas said. “Customers couldn’t believe we were open and serving food. Some people had nothing; they were trying to cook on barbecues.”
My visits over the summer showed me a restaurant that has endeared itself to its community with reasonable prices, casual but better than average food, live music several nights a week and efficient, friendly service. In Margate, Bocca fills a gap between a beloved saloon like Robert’s Place and a polished, big-ticket dining experience like Steve & Cookie’s.
Bocca has three distinct spaces, with two distinct menus, but anything can be ordered from any room. From the pizzeria’s 900-degree, coal-fired oven come pervasively smoky pies (and that’s a good thing) with toppings like caramelized onions and Italian long hots or marinated yellow tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. In the tangerine, navy and copper-colored dining room, you can linger over a three-course meal with more attentive service and an adult vibe.
The bar, with its cool blue under-counter lighting, specializes in big-box wines, martinis and sugary cocktails and a usual-suspects beer list, none of which seems to bother the tanned and toned weekenders.
After an eight-year run at Blue Heron Pines golf club, Pappas, 43—a Galloway native grown “tired of the banquet scene”—has given Bocca a menu of Italian favorites plus burgers and salads.
The Mediterranean staples are all respectable: local little-neck clams with al dente spaghetti in a light garlic, white wine and basil sauce; jumbo shrimp in a similar sauce shot with hot red pepper flakes, served over wilted spinach; oversized ravioli filled with crabmeat and ricotta in a tomato-cream vodka sauce; and meaty mussels mingled with roasted red peppers and cubed potatoes in a chunky pomodoro or white sauce you’ll want to sop up. (Ask for extra bread.)
Pappas cooked for a year at the Phoenix Diner in Absecon. From that experience comes juicy half-pound cheeseburgers (upgraded with Angus beef and brioche buns) and more than credible crocks of French onion soup topped with crispy onion straws. His salads are worthy, too, whether loaded with charred asparagus, squash, peppers and eggplant (the Grilled Vegetable) or topped with moist roasted salmon, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, black olives, capers and roasted garlic. My favorite featured fresh bibb lettuce cupping tangy gorgonzola, chopped celery and apples, candied walnuts and gently poached chicken, all dressed in a light apple cider vinaigrette.
Some dishes fell short, like uncrisp chicken wings in an overly sweet Thai chile glaze and a tiny brownie sundae. The biggest disappointment was the bistecca a la Fiorentina, a dishonor to its Florentine porterhouse namesake, even if this one cost only $28. Overly charred—its marinade of garlic, olive oil and rosemary undetectable in the overcooked interior—it came with undercooked roasted potatoes and under-seasoned grilled asparagus.
Bocca’s only irksome trait is not taking reservations. On summer weekends, you could face a 45-minute wait. Tables usually opened up sooner than the hostesses’ worst-case estimates, and the bar is a pleasant place to pass the time. Perhaps the crush will ease in the off-season.