Counting Candles

From birthday bubbles to blowing out the candle, dinner at Bocca is extraordinary.

By Jan Walsh

This year we celebrated my birthday at Bocca Ristorante. They start dinner service at 4:30, which we take advantage of because we like to eat dinner early, and natural light is best for my food photos. A valet is waiting as we arrive. And we are not the only ones who have early reservations. Gathering on the sidewalk are four young couples dressed in evening gowns and tuxedoes. Must be prom night. Glad I dressed up.

We are welcomed inside and seated in our favorite banquette with sky light overhead. There is a birthday card from Chef Tom Saab and the staff, rather than a reservation place holder. Nice. And we are greeted by our server, Tatum with birthday bubbly for a birthday toast. Nicer. Sommelier, Carlos Cisneros, who is on track to become a Master, sources the wines for Bocca and Tom and Christina Saab’s sister restaurant, Bistro 218.

Next are birthday cocktails. Kev has a Chocolate Martini from the dessert cocktails menu. Thank you, Bocca for having his favorite martini on the menu. I thought it was a classic. But it has disappeared off most cocktail lists. And some restaurants do not keep the ingredients on hand if asked to make one. Now that the price of cocoa has soared, this might become a trend. Imagine, life without chocolate martinis. Kev’s cocktail is lovely, not too sweet and not too creamy. It is smooth and silky, with deep chocolaty layers, garnished with shaved chocolate. My Tuscan Fog is a fabulous frothy tini of Hennessy VS, honey, lemon, and Earl Grey foam. The Henny shines in this glass with flavors of a honeyed apple pie balanced with the acidity of lemon and tea. A memorable, decadent drink.

The menu has changed since we last had dinner at Bocca. While I find it difficult to choose among their anti-pasta and salads, Kev does not. He wisely selects Spicy Veal Meatballs, and I settle on Caesar Salad. The meatballs are served with bread, topped with parmesan, and are center stage on a pool of Bocca’s magnificent marinara. The meatballs are elegantly light and smooth in texture and melt in your mouth as they burst with flavor. The thick and plump marinara not only enhances the meatballs, it makes a delicious dredge for the bread. But I could eat this stuff with a spoon! No wonder Kev always has the meatballs. I love Caesar salad, which ironically the reason I don’t often order one. For me a Caesar is not a Caesar if anchovy is not a part of the dressing and/or a garnish. I don’t recall ever seeing it on the menu at Bocca, so I am anxious to try it. Tatum asks if I want anchovy on it. Of course! So, she says she will order extra. First bite proves it is one of the best I have ever tasted, maybe the best. Fresh and bright romaine hearts topped with wide cut parmesan, house made croutons, and anchovy. The dressing swathes every crunchy bite of lettuce and croutons, boasting scrumptious umami flavor and hints of garlic, salty smoke, and tartness. Hail, Chef!

Kev and I both order the Handkerchief Pasta for our Primi course and pair with a lovely Sauvignon Blanc from Verona, Italy, Monte Zovo “Oltremonte.” The silky folds of pasta envelop Maine Lobster, butternut squash, tomatoes, and pesto, and are smothered in a fabulous beurre blanc. This colorful amalgam of yellow sauce, green pasta, and pink lobster is beyond words. Tender bites of lobster are swaddled in the delicate pasta covered in a superb beurre blanc. I ask General Manager, Matt Dunn what is the secret to this sauce. And he explains that Sommelier Carlos selected the white wine used in its recipe. If you cook with wine, take note. Your dish will only be as good as the quality and flavors of your wine choice. Catch this dish if you can.

For Secondi course, Kev selects the Braised Beef Short Rib and I opt for Pan Seared Gulf Red Snapper. His plate arrives in an artful presentation, with the short rib towering over polenta, artisanal mushroom, baby carrots, tomatoes, and asparagus in its glossy red wine braise. The tender, glazed beef with crisp veggies is a man pleaser. My snapper is served skin on coated in the same beautiful beurre blanc. It floats on a bed of risotto in a pool of the white wine butter sauce. If you love a good risotto, you will not find better than Bocca. The dish is also accented with acidity from oven dried tomato and grassy notes of broccolini.

For birthday dessert I share Lemon Cake with Kev. It arrives to the table with candle lit. I close my eyes, make a wish and a prayer, and blow its flame out and up to heaven.
The moist cake is crowned with strawberry gelato and white chocolate candied lemon zest, ending my birthday on a sweet note.

Birthdays are not only a time to celebrate but also a time for reflection. And I share my childhood food memories in the April Insider on SubStack at



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