When I was asked to write about Rocco’s Little Chicago it was as if I was tasked to put on a comfy pair of slippers and relax in my favorite chair.
Not only am I a longtime fan of the food, but the owner, Anthony “Rocco” DiGrazia, and I go back well over a decade in various ranges of rapport. In my early days of food writing, and when I wasn’t drinking beer and eating at his shop, we would see each other at culinary events.
You all know Rocco’s Little Chicago (of course you do). If you’ve lived here in Tucson for more than 10 minutes you know about Rocco’s. It’s the little pizza stand that could, and still stands after all of that construction on Broadway Boulevard (some of which is still going on). Even with the inconvenience and occasional power outage (including a few “plumbing” issues now and then), people from all over continued to line up for some of the best Chicago-style, deep dish pizza in town.
Why exactly is it one of the best deep dish pizzas around? Maybe it’s because Mr. DiGrazia’s hometown happens to be Chicago and he started making pizzas when he was just 16 years old.
The deep dish itch began to seriously take hold when DiGrazia moved to Champaign, Illinois to attend college. It was there he found a job slingin’ and saucin’ in the legendary deep dish joint called Papa Dels which had been in business since the early ‘60s.
We have a girlfriend to thank for bringing DiGrazia to Tucson.
She was living here around the time he was set to graduate, around the early 90s, and seeing as it was cheaper to relocate than to constantly commute or run up phone bills, DiGrazia made the move that would shape his career and shake things up for Southern Arizona (as far as our pizza culture was concerned).
With the Papa Dels pedigree behind him, DiGrazia moved from kitchen to kitchen, working in as many variations of cuisine as possible while, at the same time, developing his own style of deep dish. A few years later, after acquiring a small location on Broadway that previously housed a bagel concept, Rocco’s Little Chicago opened in December of 1998.
Instead of immediate success, it took a few years for some Tucsonans to grasp the idea of Chicago deep dish pizza. At first, the notion of “pizza cake” didn’t really seem all that appealing. However, after some time and patience, DiGrazia and Rocco’s Little Chicago ascended into local legendary pizza and pizza chef status.
Once the word got out about how good the food was at Rocco’s, the awards and “Best Ofs” started pouring in. Let’s be honest, you can get a standard flat pizza almost anywhere (Rocco's has a thin crust, too) but very few boast the chops to provide an honest Chicago deep dish pizza. Even fewer can claim the windy city as their hometown. It is ill-advised to come to a deep dish pizza fight if you haven’t even stepped foot in the city that has a big mirror bean thingy. Go Cubs!
Winning the bouts and boasting the clout is why Rocco’s got a feature on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”. It was early 2018 when the spiky, bleach-tipped Guy Fieri arrived in Tucson, making stops at a few restaurants that made the syndicated channel’s grade.
Rocco’s was one of them. The “so money” dude beamed as he ate a wide selection of goodies for the camera with DiGrazia right there by his side.
Deep dish pizza? Of course. But one item that Rocco’s has become famous for is their wings. This is something that the locals have been praising for years now, although the shout from Guy didn’t hurt. In fact, his wing approval was off the hook.
On various online platforms discussing where and what to eat in Tucson, a common question arrives: Best place for wings? A common answer is Rocco’s. It’s true, there is just something magically delicious about them. Always meaty and always popping with crazy flavor from a housemade hot sauce. The wings may have even seduced vegetarians to succumb to the dark side of white meat.
Watch that episode of “Triple D” and you’ll see that Fieri has a dose of dribble clinging to his dual-shaded beard the whole time he was nibbling on those nuggets. That should account for something.
Pizza and wings. Check and double-check.
Personally, I have always loved the pasta and salads at Rocco’s. The Florentine Ravioli is literally one of my favorite dishes around. The so-called “pillows of goodness” are stuffed with fresh spinach and topped with a delicate basil and tomato sauce. It's decadent without all of the guilt because of, you know, vegetables.
Speaking of vegetables, don't hesitate to order a salad, much like the Hearty House Salad. Coming in three sizes (Single, Double, and Family), it's loaded with Romaine and red leaf lettuce with red onions, oil-cured olives, sun-dried tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and tomatoes. It's a treat with any of the available dressings — bleu cheese, Lefty’s Vinaigrette, or ranch dressing.
Then there's the Caprese Salad and making a great one means you better have the best homemade mozzarella cheese alongside basil and tomatoes straight from the farm. Rocco’s version has all of that. It's one of those salads that is good in any season. Remember just a few days ago when it snowed and now we are getting hit with 80-degree days? Rocco’s caprese meets that lotto number randomness with the shiniest of stances.
It is always recommended to pair your meal with a signature cocktail. For example, there is a Limoncello Margarita that goes great with anything. Since Rocco’s is an Italian joint at its core, the list of wines is also well thought out and to the point.
Although, pizza tastes so good with a really good beer. The draft selection can change on a whim so it’s best to stop in or check the website to see what they got going on tap. Same with the cans and bottles. For me, a slice and a cold can of Old Style takes me back to younger cash-strapped days, and when that Tucson sun beams through the windows and onto the bar, that pairing is like a nostalgic wink from the gods.
For nearly 25 years, Rocco’s Little Chicago has been in that same cozy spot, but for the last five years, DiGrazia has been planning to get into a larger location just a few doors down on Broadway. He needs the space, both floor and kitchen, because as Tucson grows so does the customer base of Rocco’s.
A bigger bar, more tables, a wider patio area, and a more spacious kitchen to allow DiGrazia to keep making his signature pies would be appreciated by all.
That just means Rocco’s isn’t going anywhere. Chicago can keep those skyscrapers, neon green hot dog relish, and John Cusack. We have adobe houses, Sonoran hot dogs, and Anthony DiGrazia. Original spot or new, it doesn’t matter. If he builds it, we will come.
Rocco's Little Chicago is located at 2707 E. Broadway Blvd. and is open daily from 11 a.m. - 10 p.m. For more information, visit roccoslittlechicago.com and follow Rocco's on Facebook and Instagram.
Mark Whittaker began his journalism career in San Francisco around 1997. It was for a small Northern California music magazine...