Rocco had his sights on chefdom ever since his first job prying open cans of tomatoes at a pizzeria when he was 11. During high school, he spent nights and weekends at the New Hyde Park Inn -- "We made head cheese from scratch," he says proudly -- and still graduated a year early. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and practiced on his family during holidays. At Thanksgiving, "I basically took the turkey apart. I made turkey medallions with clams and sweet-potato velouté. Not what anyone wants to eat," he says. After CIA, he set off for a year in Paris under the wing of Dominique Cecillon, the executive chef at Jardin de Cygne: "If you want to be a good chef, you go to Europe."
When DiSpirito arrived with all his bags, he was told he didn't have the right papers to work in the Michelin-starred restaurant. "I had to go to Cactus Charlie's, an American Western saloon that served burgers with 50 toppings," he says, cringing at the memory. "Ladling blue-cheese topping, pickle topping on cheeseburgers. Such a horrific experience." He figured out a way around his predicament by scoring an Italian passport that made him a citizen of the EC.
"We fell in love with each other," he says of Cecillon. "We send each other packages. I send him Coffee-mate and Aim toothpaste. He sends me bottles of truffle vinaigrette."
Back in New York, he landed at Adrienne at the Peninsula Hotel as a commis, the second-lowest job on the line, under "the meanest chef de partie on the planet! I'd still like to pop him in the face if I saw him walking down the street." He spent the next two years at Boston University's School of Hospitality Administration. There he met Bryan Calvert, who would become his longtime sous-chef. Calvert testifies to DiSpirito's curly, shoulder-length hair and the raging parties he threw at his Back Bay apartment.
When he returned to New York, he "staged" for a month at a time at Le Bernardin, Aureole, and River Cafe. "I can't even remember them now," he says. It was a typical nomadic-chef trajectory until Kunz asked him to help open the now-legendary Lespinasse. "I looked at his résumé and felt he had the enthusiasm," Kunz recalls. "I don't know if you can say angry, but he was so driven already, he had the ambition to succeed." Scott Bryan, now executive chef at Veritas, worked the line next to him. "Lespinasse was the most hectic and understaffed place; basically, every day we had to work doubles. It was treacherous," Bryan says, "but I knew Rocco was one of the guys going places because when Rocco used to change, the first thing he would do was put his chef's hat on. Then he'd put his jacket on before he'd even changed his trousers! We used to bust his chops about it, the guy was so fucking serious."
"His food is Extreme American,' says Gael Greene. "At times, the menu might sound outrageous, but it never is. He is really weird and really wonderful."
That obsessiveness continued at Dava, the tiny three-tiered restaurant on 39th and Lexington, sandwiched between a deli and a laundromat, that put him on the map. It was September 1995 and DiSpirito was looking for a platform where he could cook his own as-yet-untitled cuisine, largely inspired by his tour of duty at Lespinasse.
By some sort of culinary miracle, Ruth Reichl came by. "When you're the restaurant critic of the New York Times," Reichl recalls, "friends always want to go out with you. When I told them, 'I'm taking you to Dava,' they were like, 'Oh. Do we have to go to that one?' Nothing about this place looked wonderful. Then the first dish brought out was brilliant. They brought out the next dish, and it was brilliant. Not copycat dishes, imitations of somebody else's, but really well-thought-out, well-executed, exciting food. There were flavors I had to struggle to identify -- it was thrilling."
"We went from 30 covers a night to 150," recalls Calvert. "We were jamming. A few weeks later, Rocco was in a meeting all day. I could tell he was upset. At around 5:30 p.m., he called on the intercom. I was at the order station with dupes in my hand for the six tables that were already there. He said, 'Bryan, come downstairs.' I said, 'I'm in the middle of service.' And he said, 'I know, come down.' When I got there, he said, 'Can you do me a favor and get all my knives? I don't work here anymore.' I'm thinking, if he's leaving, I'm leaving. So I collect his knives and mine. There are fifteen tables now, the dupes are just lying there. The cooks are asking what's going on. We went downstairs and walked out. Apparently, Daniel Boulud came in that night."
In the end, Dava lasted only six months. Dava's owner, Joseph Lucin, refused to comment, but word on the street was that DiSpirito was fired for blowing the modest budget on dazzling ingredients to make his name. It is a notion DiSpirito disputes, but it is not an unheard-of strategy. "I always find it unfair, and it's very self-serving, that chefs know they have to perform and they become selfishly involved in that fact," says Philip Suarez, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's financial backer and partner. "They say, 'I don't care what the food costs are, what the labor costs are, I'm going to get me three or four stars!' " Still, talent is talent, and despite his thoughts on the matter, even Suarez has talked to DiSpirito about working together. "Everybody is always talking to everybody," says Rocco, who sees Dava's demise a little differently. "Lucin thought the kind of restaurant we were running did not have the accessibility he was looking for," he says with admirable spin. "He started out deep in debt. It's impossible to recover. I didn't know that then. Now I do."
In a car heading down Lexington Avenue, DiSpirito interrupts a conversation when the façade catches his eye. "This is Dava, by the way," he says, pointing to a pink stucco restaurant now called Belluno. "I still get a little queasy in my stomach."
DiSpirito was determined to return to the game with a big budget, and fast. "I talked to everyone in the restaurant business. No one was spared," he says. "Drew Nieporent, David Emil from Windows on the World, Steve Hanson, Sirio Maccioni, Danny Meyer -- I went through the whole list."
"Rocco believed that chefs have to be recognized when they're young," says real-estate investor David Avital, his longtime friend and financial adviser. "And he thought he had to do something with a million-dollar investment. I told him, 'You're crazy! Just make a living. Start small with $60,000, $70,000, and work your way up. Why do you need millions of dollars to start a restaurant?' Did you know he has one of the most expensive ovens in New York?"
In fact, DiSpirito's well-funded reign at Union Pacific almost never happened. Another chef, Ming Tsai, now host of East Meets West on the Food Network, had all but landed the job. Then Steve Scher (Rain, Calle Ocho), one of Union Pacific's four partners, who once had a memorable Dava meal, ran into DiSpirito at a party. "When I saw him, a big lightbulb went off," says Scher. He invited DiSpirito in for an audition. "The food that he did was in another league," muses Scher. "One dish I still remember, it was a version of the Taylor Bay scallops he does now, with tomato water and uni, but he used freshwater shrimp or crawfish that he had fried somehow to crisp them up. We quickly changed course."