Photos by Tony Valainis
IF PASSERSBY last fall wondered what was going on behind that spiffy new Bocca awning at the intersection of 22nd and Talbott streets, the mirrored blackout windows provided no clues. “Are the lights even on yet?” wondered the drive-by Gladys Kravitzes. Even after the business, a restaurant serving “modern Italian cuisine,” officially opened in the middle of November, it maintained an air of mystery. Yes, the lights were on, though just barely visible.
Bocca’s dusky wattage provides the appropriate mood lighting for a black-tablecloth restaurant with a menu divided into piatti primi and piatti secondi. Executive chef Ricky Martinez’s molto moderno pastas and elaborate meats are sexy accompaniments to the muted walls, textured glass partitions, and antiqued mirrors rimmed in decorative moss. The chef who made his mark on Indy by heading up the kitchen at Latin-focused Delicia and then went on to develop the menu for Havana Cigar Lounge in Fishers applies his expertise to Bocca’s short list of dishes. He arranges charred octopus—surprisingly plump and meaty—over a bed of whipped potatoes ringed in sweet red pepper oil and recasts basic bruschetta as a sweet starter smoothed with goat cheese mousse, fig jam, and a drizzle of basil-hibiscus reduction. Other ambitious platings range from salmon over red wine-mushroom risotto to roasted chicken with marsala demiglace and kale hash to portobella-stuffed ravioli in vodka cream sauce punctuated with bits of caramelized onion. Perfectly seared scallops float in a dense lemon-butter broth with artichoke hearts and silky sacchetti—little pasta purses filled with smooth, tangy cheese. And braised lamb shank does a high kick off the plate, a succulent hunk of slow-cooked meat that slides right off the bone.
What impresses even more about this highly stylized and of-the-moment menu is that Bocca is the newest member of one of Indy’s oldest Italian-restaurant families. “I hired an incredible chef, and I wanted to give him some freedom to flex his muscle and try new things,” says owner Dan Cage. “I love what he’s done.” But then, Cage is the son-in-law of longtime restaurateur Gino Pizzi, whose traditional, seafood-heavy Italian cuisine is part of the Indianapolis dining canon.
While branches of the family currently own Ambrosia, Maialina Italian Kitchen + Bar, and Blupoint Oyster House, Pizzi most notably ran the original Ambrosia on Westfield Boulevard (precursor to today’s SoBro iteration) in the heart of Broad Ripple during the 1980s and ’90s, a snug little date-night restaurant known for its proper Italian fare and its high-profile front-of-the-house agent, Mamma. The matriarch of the Pizzi family greeted customers at the door and directed them to their tables—famously handpicking which guests would be seated on display in the front window, Broad Ripple’s center-stage answer to The Ivy in West Hollywood.
This brings us back to those darkened windows fronting Bocca, which give us nothing. “We were looking for a certain aesthetic that felt a little more romantic and intimate,” Cage says. “That’s what we felt like the neighborhood needed.” Until COVID-19 hit, this same building contained Shoefly Public House, a sunny, come-as-you-are gastropub that welcomed the young families of Herron-Morton and Fall Creek. “It was a nice neighborhood restaurant,” says Cage. “But we didn’t want to be Shoefly 2.0.”
Instead, Bocca gave the place a light overhaul—though one that makes former Shoefly regulars cock their heads when they walk in for the first time. Most disorientingly, Cage tore out the central bar and moved it to the far side of the dining room, turning the space into a little noir sanctuary that sends out polished versions of all the pre-meal standards: a tall, refreshing Italian Paloma, two kinds of negroni, and a solid Old Fashioned.
You could nurse a proper basil gimlet while considering a first course. But definitely go with the baked goat cheese dip or crispy arancini—risotto fried into crunchy balls—instead of the tiny calamari rings. Opt for fresh oysters, a Pizzi restaurant darling, over any of the heavy-handed salads. And if you need a nightcap after polishing off every satisfying bite of dense and meaty Bolognese or mushroom lasagna white-sauced with bechamel and enhanced with pesto, Bocca’s lower level houses a low-key speakeasy, Verita Bar, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
You can descend the stairs beside the host stand (or, “Come in through the back door after 10 p.m. and be discreet,” as directed by a note at the bottom of Verita’s dedicated craft-cocktail menu) to discover this brick-walled bunker of sofas and deep lounge chairs. It has its own bar, a soft-lit spread of potions smaller than the one upstairs but just as intoxicating. The mixology involves more showmanship. The drinks are more intricate and obscure, several built around deep-flavored Italian amaros—herbal after-dinner digestifs combined in various ways with rum, brandy, mezcal, Jack Daniel’s, and apple blossom bitters. To make the minty Amaria, the bartender uses a kitchen torch to melt brown sugar in a spoon, dribbling the molten liquid directly onto an oversized ice cube in the glass that returns it to a glob of burnt-sugar candy.
The subterranean setup feels a lot like another one of Cage’s ventures, The Commodore, a moody throwback bar inside the historic Fountain Square Theatre. There’s no sign outside or directions inside to guide customers. As with Verita, if you know, you know. Demure is a risky strategy these days, but places like Bocca get our attention with a whisper and a quiet invitation to see what awaits us inside.