The yachts bop and sway in the gentle swell as the fishermen on the pier try their luck for squid. The red rocks of Schnapper Point glow deep red in the winter sun. Above this is the warm embrace of The Rocks dining room, a much-loved restaurant that this year turns 20.
“How many other restaurants in Melbourne are still cooking and serving people after 20 years?” asks owner Rob De Santis. He’s a man who has made his mark on Victoria’s dining culture, redefining the way we eat pizza, bringing classic thin-crust pizzas to the public with D.O.C., which originated in Carlton and is still part of Mornington’s dining scene. “My mates and I were at uni and we went and ordered pizza in some Carlton Italian restaurant,” he says. “We were served these big, fluffy pizzas covered in sauce and bad ham. We wanted something authentic. We wanted real prosciutto and real mozzarella. So we started D.O.C.”
Rob is a Peninsula boy through and through. His parents brought Italian hospitality to Mornington with the fondly remembered Julius Caesar’s and Villa d’Este. Rob grew up washing dishes and watching his Italian-born parents go to every effort to cook authentic Italian food and look after their guests. From them he has inherited that unstoppable work ethic and sense of hospitality.
In 2000 he succeeded over some very big names to land the tender to run the newly renovated restaurant space over the Mornington Yacht Club. Being so close to the water, The Rocks specialised in seafood from day one. Two decades on the tradition continues, from whole snapper cooked on the bone to freshly shucked oysters. There could be a mixed seafood grill for two to a visually stunning dish of southern rock lobster, served grilled on the half-shell with fine linguine dressed in a rich lobster bisque. One of the classic dishes, alongside crisp fish and chips and grilled fish of the day, is the Mornington Mussels, a bowl of mussels freshly harvested from the farm a few hundred metres offshore and delivered fresh from the boat by the crew. Rob works closely with his chef Darren Papa on a menu not only focused on seafood but with a broad offering, from cold flippin’ fresh sashimi to a hot soft-shell crab slider. Meat lovers can still get a sticky, gelatinous lamb shoulder or a dish of slow-cooked beef ribs on parsnip puree. The dessert menu sees dishes informed by Rob’s new distillery, Saint Felix, in Mordialloc. The brandy baba is an old-fashioned sponge soused in the Saint Felix brandy in which local cherries and cocoa husks have been infused.
Over its 20 years, it would be easy to say that The Rocks has become local institution. It has a great menu, a sensational wine list balancing Peninsula wines alongside some great imports, and staff who have come from well-known establishments such as Café e Cucina to work in a room with that view across Mornington Harbour. But it has been the continuous subtle changes that Rob De Santis has brought to The Rocks over those 20 years that has defined this restaurant. It is eternally smart and modern, yet it is the place where locals come for their family gatherings, to meet with friends, for date nights or for long summer nights by the cocktail bar. The Rocks turns 20 this year. Happy birthday The Rocks.
Richard Cornish is a freelance food writer filing regular food news stories for newspapers and magazines across Australia, including The Age, SMH, Good Food, Eat.Drink and now each month in Mornington Peninsula Magazine. He is also an author and photographer and the host of live food shows including Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Apollo Bay Seafood Festival and Winter Wild Festival. www.richardcornish.com.au