Mo Rocca launched his Cooking Channel show, “My Grandmother’s Ravioli,” with a simple premise.
He grew up enjoying his grandmother’s elaborate Sunday dinners, but she passed away before he could learn how to make her homemade pasta. So he decided to travel the country visiting other people’s grandparents, who would teach him their culinary secrets.
But Rocca has a confession to make. The series returns for a third season later this year — and he still doesn’t know how to cook.
In fact, he never uses the oven in his Greenwich Village apartment. The last thing he pulled out of there? “Sweaters,” he says, with his trademark deadpan delivery.
One thing’s for sure: Rocca doesn’t consider himself a gourmand. He would rather find the perfect barbecue chicken – “moist all the way to the bone, even though, I, like a lot of people, hate the word moist” – than wait on line for the latest food fad. (The cronut? Too rich for his taste.)
“When I leave the shoot, do I come home and cook? You probably want me to say ‘yes,’ but the answer is that I don’t,” he admits.
So why in the world does Rocca consider this a dream job? That’s easy: He’s far more curious about the folks wearing the aprons than what they fry up in a pan.
“I’m just so interested in who these people are, their lives and in some cases, the very dramatic experiences they’ve had,” he says. “The cooking is really only the spine of it.”
Rocca will talk about his own experiences – in and out of the kitchen – at The Ridgefield Playhouse May 3. He’ll try to give the audience a sense of what he does for a living, which may prove challenging, since he jokes that he’s “still trying to figure out exactly what it is that I do.”
At 45, Rocca has had a wide-ranging professional journey. He got his big break working at “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” including the Peabody Award-winning “Indecision 2000” presidential campaign coverage. He gave pop culture commentary on VH1’s “I Love the…” series, and was a correspondent on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Last year, he produced a documentary about voting in America, and he’s a frequent panelist on NPR’s “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”
Not to mention, he’s contributed pieces to “CBS Sunday Morning” since 2006, getting promoted to correspondent in 2011 after developing a knack for quirky segments, such as tracing the origin of the word “OK.” A presidential history buff, Rocca has also done nearly 20 offbeat profiles of the nation’s commanders-in-chief. Most recently, he visited Buffalo to take a look at the lesser-known No. 13 Millard Fillmore.
“I look at my career in television like going back to college and taking all electives,” he says.
Still, a common thread runs throughout his diverse gigs. “It’s about telling a story that will keep an audience riveted,” he adds. “It’s not that big a difference for me between ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘Sunday Morning,’ believe it or not.”
That means he’ll do just about anything for a good story, whether it’s trying Double Dutch for a feature on jump rope, or turning a cartwheel while interviewing Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas. On “My Grandmother’s Ravioli,” sometimes the guests turn the table: In the show’s premiere episode, Scarsdale’s Ruth Teig surprised Rocca with a live carp in her bathtub to illustrate how Jews in Europe would keep fish fresh before refrigeration was invented.
For Rocca, it’s not about stunts or making his subjects look silly. He has a warm-hearted approach, allowing each grandparent’s story to shine as they prepare a meal together. Teig, for instance, whipped up a traditional Shabbat dinner and explained that, as a Holocaust survivor, she truly appreciates the good things in life.
And although Rocca swears he’s paying attention as these little old ladies (and a few gentlemen) show him how to make plantains or paella, their lessons go beyond making a delicious dish.
“I wanted to meet the people and learn – forgive me, you’re going to gag on this line – but to learn the recipe for living,” he says.
A native of Washington, D.C., Maurice Rocca is the youngest of three boys born to his Italian-American father and Colombian-born mother. “Everyone thinks I’m a WASP, or Jewish,” he says. “No one suspects I’m half-Latin.”
Rocca was always a performer, however, starting out with song-and-dance roles in community theater as a kid. During the summers, he attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he befriended actress and Purchase College alumnus Parker Posey. “We were 16 years old, reading Stanislavsky,” he recalls.
He went on to Harvard University, where most of his time was spent with the renowned Hasty Pudding theatrical society. Rocca then made his way to New York, landing parts in the Southeast Asia tour of the musical “Grease” and the Paper Mill Playhouse’s “South Pacific.” Yet after awhile, he felt his talents weren’t best suited to the stage.
“Lining up outside the (Actors’) Equity to audition for a revival of ‘Damn Yankees’ on Broadway, like I did in 1994, that really didn’t make that much sense for me,” Rocca says.
Instead, he turned to writing and producing for television, starting with the PBS children’s series, “Wishbone.” Rocca credits his training on that program with landing “The Daily Show,” calling it “the perfect training camp.”
Now, after logging so many different performances over the years, Rocca doesn’t know what his job title should be. Satirist? “Kind of pretentious.” Humorist? “A little fuddy duddy.” TV personality? He used to call himself that, tongue-in-cheek, but “it’s just too cheeseball. I can’t do it anymore.”
Well, who would be a better career role model then – David Letterman or Dan Rather? After a moment, Rocca chooses CBS colleague and veteran journalist Charlie Rose.
“I don’t know if I could do the heavy lifting Charlie does, spending an hour talking to someone like (International Monetary Fund managing director) Christine Lagarde, but I admire that very much,” he says.
Then again, Charlie Rose hasn’t snuggled with strangers for a story about professional cuddlers, as Rocca did earlier this year. OK, he amends with a chuckle, “Charlie Rose with a dash of wacky. That’s my model.”
Mo Rocca appears at The Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 E. Ridge Road, 7:30 p.m, May 3. Tickets are $75. To order or for more information, call 203-438-5795 or visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org.