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Roko Italian Cuisine
6801-105 Parker Farm Dr., Mayfaire
Price: $$-$$$
Bottom line: Roko isn’t easy to find, but it’s worth looking for!

MADE WITH LOVE: The bread, penne carbonara, and strawberry cheesecake at Roko Italian Cuisine are all homemade—even the whipped cream! Photo by Bethany Turner

Tucked away on a less-traveled road in Mayfaire Town Center is a tiny gem of a restaurant. The newly opened Roko has a few flaws, but overall it’s a lovely Italian bistro that warrants a look (assuming you can find it—Parker Farm Drive really is a less-traveled road). Owned by a Croatian couple, Jardan and Vojka Peros, who moved to Eastern NC in the mid-80s, they opened shop at the end of March and are certainly no strangers to running a restaurant. In fact, they operated a few popular Italian restaurants in Morehead City and New Bern. It shows, too.

Roko’s charmingly stark décor is enamoring. I love the dark wood, low light, marble bar tops and everything about its minimal style. Simultaneously elegant and unpretentious, the very appearance of the place is inviting to the eyes.

Skipping appetizers seemed appropriately fitting, considering Roko sends bread to the table, just as expected of any respectable Italian eatery. I’m a firm believer in good bread, and Roko does quite well here. The doughy loaf makes an excellent sponge for the EVOO and Balsamic vinegar. As if it couldn’t get any better, the condiments come from our own local shop, Taste the Olive, across the street at The Forum. Not only did this confirm Roko is using high-quality ingredients but also supporting local business. I decided that even if the food weren’t quite good, this alone would be enough for me to recommend it. The Balsamic vinegar from Taste the Olive has an exquisite sweetness that I love, and it pairs perfectly with Roko’s fluffy crumb.

The menu features classic Italian dishes. Yet, it also throws in a few Frenchies for good measure, as shown by the escargot and French onion soup on the appetizer list. While chicken, seafood, beef, lamb and vegetarian entrées are all suitably represented, in a variety of styles from salads to main courses, I had to judge the chef—the husband of the team—by his homemade pasta so prominently featured on the menu (though, one of these days, I will probably be back for the ribeye, which was a special of the evening). It’s impressive to find an Italian restaurant in town that actually takes the time-honored tradition of handmaking pasta seriously. Roko does this well, too.

I ordered a full plate of pasta rustica in an aromatic, rich sauce, with all the heavy cream one could desire coating the penne, imparting a subtle garlicky flavor. The red peppers and asparagus might have been the slightest bit overcooked, but the vegetable medley made for an immensely vibrant combination of flavors.

A particularly brilliant offering on the Roko menu is the half-sized pasta dishes. For light eaters (or reviewers who need to get a fair sampling of the menu), the smaller plates make a fantastic option. Linguini bolognese, a family favorite, tastes like bolognese should: meaty, acidic and hearty. And that’s just fine by me—no need to mess with a classic! The tomatoes mingle with the ground beef and pork in a rich and savory blend of flavors. The diced vegetables add the slightest hint of their own earthiness in an expected and predictable profile.

My love of bacon has been made all too clear in earlier reviews. Thus, no one should be shocked to find my personal favorite, the chicken penne carbonara, delightful. The smoky pork absorb the tender chicken for a remarkably tasteful meal.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t compliment Roko’s staff. Chattering effortlessly about business and baseball, they manage to be a part of every diner’s evening without seeming intrusive. And talking me into one of their half-priced desserts (on special every Sunday, nonetheless) was one of the better upsells I’ve indulged in recent memory. As it turns out, all desserts are handmade by the wife, and it doesn’t disappoint. Roko opts for a lighter style of New York cheesecake, which I find to be a pleasant departure from the dense, richer versions served at most restaurants. A suitably sweet graham cracker crust and fresh-from-the-field strawberries round out a nice end to the meal—a bargain even at full price any other day of the week.

That’s not to say everything was perfect during my visit. One of my pet peeves is seeing a local restaurant serve wines readily available in any grocery-store chain. Interesting, local food deserves boutique wines one doesn’t see on the shelves while shopping for Pepsi and Doritos. This was the one significant disappointment of my evening, and the reason I stuck with club soda and vodka.

However, since my visit, the restaurant has added beers from the Lumina Brewing Company and wines from Noni Bacca. Again, I wholeheartedly support businesses which support other local businesses. I think this is at least a step in the right direction for improving the bar options. Still, I implore the ownership at Roko to look at wines from California and Italy as an even better addition.

Roko isn’t easy to find, but it is worth finding. After Mother’s Day, they’ll also be open for lunch. With a few hours invested into the wine list, this out-of-the-way pasta joint could readily become one of my favorite hangouts.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Mari Gutierrez

    April 26, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    We had a table of 7 for dinner on Saturday night and all had the most amazing dining experience. The sampling of menu items left none of us wanting for more, everything from the awesome linguini with white clam sauce to the lamb chops were cooked perfectly. The lemon martini was an added tasty surprise. I encourage all to go and spend an evening at Roko !

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