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EAT THIS: Rocca's corzetti with rabbit

We don’t always want to be stunned; otherwise more of us would keep electric eels as pets. But everything about Rocca promised a striking new restaurant. Restaurateur Michela Larson knows good food, spots talent, and creates dining rooms that feel divine. And she’s astounded us (happily) in the past, from the lamented Michela’s and Red Clay, to the original Rialto and blu. All of this is evident at her latest, Rocca, which is intended to feature the regional food of the Italian Liguria and anchor a new restaurant row in the newly dubbed SoWa.

Despite all this, I wasn’t stunned by her efforts. I was comforted and amused and decently fed. But something about this restaurant feels a little too thought-out, or maybe too many personalities canceled each other out. Or that Liguria just isn’t Tuscany or Abruzzo. Besides, food and drinks are made on the first floor, then ferried up to the upper-level dining room, so by the time you get your order, it’s already begun to cool off. Since all the plates are small (including the pasta), Rocca makes for a better place to enjoy drinks with friends than to embark on a big-time night out.

That said, the food is quite enjoyable, beginning with a bread bowl that bets it all on a sweet focaccia. It’s a little surprising, if not spectacular, but quickly proves addictive with both superior flowery olive oil and bits of sauce. On the small-dish “tastes” menu, I liked the fritti de pesce ($6), which was not so much “fish sticks” as morsels of fried, fresh whitefish with a parsley-garlic sauce that sends you back to the bread basket. A garlicky mayonnaise was also terrific with fried fish. Twice-cooked artichokes with garlic mayonnaise ($6) were unfortunately stringy, but real baby artichokes of Italy or California aren’t easy to get. Wild-mushroom toasts ($5) were a little messier than they had to be, but had plenty of flavor, with some sheep cheese to cut it.

Rocca | 500 Harrison Avenue, Boston | Open Mon–Thurs, 5:30–10 pm; Fri & Sat, 5:30–11 pm; and Sun, 11:30 am–2:30 pm | AE, DC, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking; free lot; ramped access to outdoor and bar seating; elevator to main dining room | 617.451.5151
The most remarkable appetizer was a special on striped bass ($14), which should have been an entrée. It was two small medallions of real, wild striped bass in a wisp of lemon sauce, with slices of fingerling potato and green olives. The fish flavor was excellent, but too subtle for the portion size or the appetizer course. Our salad, insalata tre colore ($8), was red, yellow, and green leaves, with yellow parmesan shavings, and was dressed in classic Italian un-emulsified oil and vinegar.

Pastas are all homemade and novel, and are the focus of the menu. The portions are quite small, however — even smaller than in Italy, so you’ll need several to fill up. The signature is the corzetti with braised-rabbit red-wine sauce ($14). Corzetti is large coin-shaped pasta, each piece stamped with the name of the restaurant. It’s accompanied by a light stew of chopped rabbit, though not bunny-like at all, more like veal than chicken.

Spring green panzotti with walnut sauce ($14) sounds great: arugula and other greens in stuffed pasta with a rich sauce. But on our night, the pasta was thick and chewy, and overwhelmed the stuffing; the sauce was unpleasantly gluey, too. I was a lot happier with linguine levanto with rock shrimp ($16), a nice homemade pasta to wrap around nuggets of local shrimp and bits of tomato. It wasn’t as chewy as Italian pasta, but it was very good.

There are only a handful of true entrées, and judging by the burrida ($21), a Ligurian fish stew, even those aren’t going to leave you anything for tomorrow’s lunch. The bowl had two littleneck clams, two excellent whole prawns (warning: antennae and heads are included), whitefish, and a sprinkling of cut-up calamari. The broth was too good and too concentrated to have been made from those components, and there was also a little heap of super pesto on one side. A couple pieces of toast went quickly, so it was back to the focaccia.

Both water and wine are served in too-small, V-shaped glasses. Ordering by the glass, a vermentino di Sardegna ($6.50/glass; $26/bottle) had enough mineral flavor to work as white wine. But a barbera d’Asti ($6.50/$26) had almost no structure, and there was little hope of capturing the aroma. It might have been the last glass from an open bottle; then again, it might have tasted like that because the stemware is so poor. This is in contrast with a very amusing variety of shaped small plates and bowls, and Italian-made flatware of modern design. Decaf coffee ($3) and decaf cappuccino ($4) were both superior.

Desserts were perhaps the most satisfying course. Smashed-almond bark ($7) was almost, well, stunning. It’s not really a bark, more of a meringue base for toasted walnuts, broken up into pieces just right for dipping in a bowl of dark-chocolate fondue. Chocolate bis ($7) is the real chocoholic dessert, kind of a bitter chocolate pie with a chocolate-brownie-like shell and decorations. A walnut-fig torta ($7) was messier than I expected, but also tastier: with toasted walnuts, marinated figs, a torte shell, and a bonus scoop of creamy gelato, this would impress even in Vienna. A special dessert of warm berry parfait ($9) was terrific, both for the ripeness of the berries and the comforting effect of having them cooked a little bit.

Our waitress was helpful, accurate, and well-informed, but the system has someone else deliver the food to the table, and that someone does not know who orders what. (Our fellow was a bad guesser, too, but it wasn’t his fault.) The setting is very nicely done. You enter on the side down a long stonework ramp, tempted by a surprisingly quiet outdoor patio and come into a bar complete with silent Red Sox on TV. The dining room, now lit by evening sun through a scrim-like curtain, is awash in “S” shapes: from the weave of the walnut veneer to wave patterns in the carpet, to grooves in the ceiling with a shifting color organ. Some bare-brick and cork walls provide Italian asymmetry. This sounds busy, but is actually rather peaceful. Music moves from jazz to techno while staying nicely in the background.

Rocca is no place for serious hunger, but it has already developed a crowd as a neighborhood gathering spot, and is not booking reservations for every table to keep that going.

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Robert Nadeau:

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