Mo Rocca cooks with the senior set
By Bonnie S. Benwick,
Some adults maintain few vestiges of their childhood selves. In Rocca’s case, traits were established that delight his colleagues and cause his fans to gush on Twitter: He is driven by curiosity, a natural kibbitzer, a gentle prankster, unaffected by fame.
“He is fascinated by things the average person wouldn’t even think about,” says Vance DeGeneres, a friend and fellow “Daily Show” alum who is co-president of actor Steve Carell’s production company in Los Angeles. “I can’t think of anyone else like Mo.”
Rocca spent formative years watching those Reilly-era TV shows at the modest family home in Bethesda where his mother still lives. Do not try to stump him on “Brady Bunch” trivia.
When he wasn’t memorizing the almanac or working his way through the set of World Book encyclopedias, he was finding ways to make his family laugh. Each of the three Rocca boys, Mo being the youngest, became “borderline obsessed” with accumulating knowledge in fields with little overlap, says the middle son, Lawrence, who is director of development at Georgetown Prep. Francis, the eldest (you weren’t expecting “Curly,” were you?), is the Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service.
The younger brothers speak of their parents with great affection, crediting them with creating an environment where music and language were prized. Everybody was funny, Larry says. Mo developed a passion for musicals and show tunes. After a brief stint at parochial school — not a good fit for the irreverent — he entertained classmates at Wood Acres Elementary and Pyle Middle schools and, later, at Georgetown Prep (Booster Club president, varsity letter for cheering) and at Harvard (Hasty Pudding president). There were tap dancing lessons, even a little ballet, along the way.
As a tweenager, “he registered at the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts, what is now Imagination Stage, without even telling me,” says his Colombian-born mom, Maria Luisa “Tini” Rocca. “He just came home and said, ‘Give me a check!’ So I did. It was a good thing.”
After post-graduation study of kabuki theater in Japan and a brief stay at home (waiting tables), he moved to New York in 1992. Soon enough, road-company theater gigs and friends who knew friends welcomed him into a world that, in turn, offered opportunities in television.
“Paula Deen follows me on Twitter,” he says with conviction.
Rocca had previously pitched his idea for a show that featured older generations teaching the younger ones how to cook family dishes. With some Mo-mentum behind it, the second pitch got the green light once the Cooking Channel begain airing more original programming.
The Sundays of Rocca’s youth were spent at his grandmother’s apartment across from the National Cathedral, where great Italian meals came out of a tiny kitchen. Guilt, he claims, inspired “My Grandmother’s Ravioli.” He didn’t realize how good the gravy was until it was gone. But he has become savvy about what makes good television.
“He is who he is, on camera and off,” says Gideon Evans, the executive producer at the Cooking Channel who first worked with Rocca on “The Daily Show” in 2000. “A complete original. A good conversationalist. We have similar sensibilities in that ‘MGR’ was supposed to be about bringing out characters, not a cooking show about ingredients.”
Evans recalls the auditions with glee. “We held them at CBS, which is at 57th and 11th. The waiting room in this big office building was filled with a sea of elderly men and women, all with Tupperware containers,” examples of their cooking, on their laps. The ones who got callbacks exhibited what Rocca calls a strong sense of self.
She: You know, I’m a potter.
He: Did you love the movie “Ghost”?
She: It doesn’t work like that for me.
He (hands not on the just-poached chicken): I’ve never dealt with a chicken like this. It’s very cathartic.
She (actually dismantling the chicken, pointing to the flap of skin and bone at its tail end): My mother called this the pupik.
He: The badonkadonk!
She: That’s not Yiddish, is it?
About an hour later, the pair has tasted from the pot and adjusted the seasoning. Rocca would push for more black pepper, but this is not his show. He praises the tenderness of the meat and the texture of the noodles and carrot coins; Mankowitz needs to get off her feet. The back-and-forthing has reached a more intimate, supportive level. It would warm the cockles of the toughest customer. It would make good television.
Rocca will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.