Eat and Drink
The Oldest Italian Restaurant in Rochester
By James Maddison, A-List Contributor
New restaurants make headlines, but, lest we forget, there is good reason, and in this case, very good reason, why we love the classics that stand the test of time and are open for decades.
Roncone’s Italian Restaurant has been in business since 1938, making it the oldest Italian restaurant in Rochester. With 78 years rich in history and tradition, everyone has a Roncone’s story. And during our visit “everyone has a Roncone’s story” was shared as much as “Forget about it.” The former didn’t become cliché because it’s likely true. I come from an Italian Rochester family – most closely related to the Tantalo lineage – and Roncone’s has been a staple of our family story. As with any good classic, I have a feeling my children, and their children will all have a Roncone’s story.
The location on Lyell Avenue is in the Dutchtown neighborhood, close to the City’s center. Beyond the unassuming exterior, a warm and inviting interior is there to greet you.
Savvy restaurant-goers, who are likely to have traveled to Italy, or have grown up with Italian heritage, know there is no substitute for real Italian food made from scratch, slow cooked with love using fresh ingredients from the garden. This is what is coming out of Chef Jimmy’s kitchen.
Everything is made to order in a kitchen Chef Jimmy vows will never have doors so that people can see who is cooking their food. Regulars consider the menu a list of suggestions. You would be best served to ask what Chef Jimmy’s cooking, like a pitcher throwing a knuckleball, just let go and have faith. During a recent visit in early December, we were knuckleballers.
We started with an off-menu appetizer Chef Jimmy simply called “minsestra” or (like many Italian words that come from different regions of Italy and have been lost in translation) simply “any variety of Italian soup.” According to Chef Jimmy, this is the Abruzzi equivalent to pantry soup, or leftovers (Roncone’s is not serving up leftovers, even though I love leftovers). We were treated to a tower of fresh garlic bread on a bed of greens and beans that were flavored with just the right amount of spice and oil.
The second course was four-cheese stuffed shells, served family-style with bread for dipping in the sauce made fresh in Roncone’s kitchen. The pasta was house made and the combination of pasta, tomato sauce and cheese was every bit as good as it looks.
The third course was pan-seared haddock and shrimp served on basil risotto. It is at this point that one fully understands that it is not hyperbole when Chef Jimmy shared with us that he has seen grown men come into Roncone’s and break down in tears. This food was made for us. Just like when Nana would cook. Sometimes, when people really care, there is a difference; elusive, but real nonetheless.
Dessert was a shared plate, with a cannoli, warm apple bread, and orange-apple-ricotta cake, and we had coffee, sat together and talked. The entire experience was an anachronism; out of place and time.
Chef Jimmy Paulino
While we were sitting and talking over coffee, we learned more about Chef Jimmy. We sat and talked food, and cooking and Rochester. It was nice. Chef Jimmy comes from a long family line of chefs and restaurant owners, and like a good Italian boy was sure to mention his mother as his biggest influence; Deloris Guelli. As a little boy, Jimmy was told to stay out of the kitchen, but couldn’t resist the temptation. By 16 years old, he was working in the kitchen of his aunt’s restaurant, Grannas on West Main Street. Soon (circa late 1970’s) Chef Jimmy’s journey took him to Las Vegas where by age 19 he was an assistant executive chef, and in a few years he became the youngest executive chef in Las Vegas working Stations Casino and serving 10,000 people per day. Despite the glamor and networking with celebrities in Las Vegas, he moved back to Rochester to revisit his true calling to cook for people in a family restaurant.
Chef Jimmy brings over 40 years’ experience to Roncone’s. The restaurant isn’t a business as much as it is a calling that is being run with two of his five children, Nina and Dominick. The small, non-descript building on Lyell Avenue is Chef Jimmy’s magnum opus and the vision is grand. A parking lot is next, and a rooftop garden growing the fresh herbs and vegetables used as ingredients.
The culture will not change anytime soon, and the “Italian comfort food” will be cooked with tender-loving care and just for you every single time you go to Chef Jimmy’s Roncone’s. Let Jimmy or Nina or Dominick know you are there, and consider the menu a list of suggestions. They are there to cook for you and the meal will be made the way you want. Or, better yet, be a knuckleballer and just tell them to bring you something good. You won’t be disappointed.
Serving lunch & dinner Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. thought 8:30 p.m.
Lunch and Dinner | Catering