By Alexandra K. Mosca
66-53 Forest Ave.
Unassuming on the outside, Joe’s Restaurant is the sort of neighborhood place one might easily dismiss as just another “pizza parlor.” To do that would be a big mistake! Eating at Joe’s is like stepping back into the past to the days of unhurried dining at any number of Italian Trattorias: albeit with kitschy overtones. The restaurant is evocative of a movie director’s idea of an Italian Restaurant: a map of Italy, framed travel posters, photos featuring Italian views, famous patrons and local politicians, all decorate the walls. The Italian-accented waiters seem to be right out of central casting. Some believe genuine Italian waiters to be the mark of a good Italian restaurant.
The nine tables, each of which can seat a party of four comfortably, are covered in – you guessed it – red and white checkered tablecloths. Paper placemats adorned with a map of Italy sit atop. Strands of plump garlic hang from the ceiling. Songs by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Perry Como, play in the background, mixing with such perennial Italian favorites as “Volare,” “Che La Lune” and “Mambo Italiano.” Even Al Martino’s rendition of “I Have But One Heart,” better known as “The Theme From The Godfather” could be heard. Were they playing the CD compilation of the Greatest Mob Hits, we wondered?
We arrived for an early dinner, just in time as it turned out. Within minutes of our arrival, the evening rush began. A rush that begins around 5 p.m. and doesn’t let up until almost 9 p.m. Yet people wait patiently in line while they peruse the several specials of the day, which are clearly listed on a board in the entryway.
Shortly after being seated, a basket of piping hot semolina bread and a dish of red and green roasted peppers were placed before us. A good thing, as we were hungry and the service is, as we soon learned, leisurely. After ordering a glass of the house red wine, my dinner companion and I perused the menu.
I confess to being one of those indecisive diners who has to read the menu from top to bottom. The problem is, simply, that I like a wide variety of food. So, true to form, I could not decide. Not so for my companion, who quickly decided upon the Salumie Formaggi appetizer and Chicken Francese, as I narrowed down my entree choices to two. Still up in the air about what to have for an appetizer, the waiter came to my rescue. Explaining to him that I was veering between the sausages, smothered in mozzarella, and one of the special appetizer listings- Polenta Broccoli Rabe, but that I had planned to have the broccoli rabe as a side dish, I asked, “What do you suggest?” He explained that the appetizer contained not only polenta and broccoli rabe but sausage and mozzarella, as well. Appetizer choice happily made! But what to do about the entree? “Fish or Veal?” I mused. Our server highly recommended the Salmone con Carciofi, one of the specials of the day, offering to prepare it to my liking. Heeding his suggestion, I went with the salmon and I was glad I did.
It took a while for the appetizers to arrive, but when they did our lengthy wait time became a dim memory. A heaping plate of broccoli rabe, pieces of sun-dried tomatoes, along with Italian sausage dripping with mozzarella cheese, and topped off by polenta with just the right amount of melted cheese, was set before me. Large chunks of garlic proliferated throughout. This was a meal unto itself! My companion’s appetizer looked similarly appealing. An intoxicating mix of supersoda (Italian salami), prosciutto, wedges of Parmesan cheese, chunks of provolone and fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, along with a mix of marinated mushrooms & olives, was set on a bed of arugula. Each appetizer could easily feed two. We eagerly dug in. The broccoli rabe, also called bitter broccoli, was anything but.
After a respite, out entrees were served. My dining partner’s Chicken Francese consisted of four large, plump chicken breasts, not pounded thin as they often are, lightly coated with egg batter, with nuggets of garlic throughout. Lemon wedges, not mere slices, served as garnish.
“I didn’t think it would be this good. This chicken is so fresh.” Proclaimed my dinner companion, after his first taste. The chicken was accompanied by a side dish of ziti with a dense tomato sauce, not at all watery. All dinner entrees meals come with a choice of pasta or vegetable. I reached out my fork for a tempting taste of the sauce, forgoing the pasta, as I had given up pasta for Lent.
My salmon entree consisted of thick chunks of salmon with meaty artichoke hearts in a garlic and oil sauce. It was sublime. My side order of broccoli was sautéed just right, in garlic and oil.
It’s worth noting that hunks of garlic were consistent throughout our meal. It was explained to us that the large pieces allow for easy removal, for those who want a lighter touch of garlic.
Interestingly, although Joe’s food is quintessential Italian, the hidden treasure in the menu is the steak dinner. A patron described it as “the best steak this side of Peter Luger’s, for the price.” The steak may be ordered with mushrooms ($3.50 extra) or shrimp and mushrooms, for ($8 extra.)
A variety of pizzas are also offered, but if you should desire the Sicilian pie, make sure to call at least three hours ahead. It is made the old-fashioned way, from scratch and needs time for the dough to rise.
Rumors that Joe’s is moving to a larger, more accommodating location two blocks away by the beginning of the summer were confirmed by the owner. Whether or not the original Joe’s will remain as a restaurant or just as a takeout place, has yet to be decided. Although the food will remain the same, one can only hope the new restaurant will retain the old world charm of the original.
Fully sated after our meal, we agreed to share dessert. The limited entries for desert are the standard fare for Italian restaurants, but not as limited as the menu might suggest. Our waiter proffered a serving tray laden with various Italian pastries, Italian-style cheesecake, strawberry tarts and tiramisu. We agreed on zeppole, in honor of St. Joseph’s Day March 19.
“This is the best zeppole I have ever tasted!” my dining companion announced emphatically. And I had to agree as I bit into the moist pastry shell, which enveloped a voluptuous concoction of creamy, rich ricotta cheese filling with mini chocolate chips, candied orange slivers and a cherry.
A whimsical final touch came along with the check. A lollipop for each of us, striped in red, white & green, the colors of the Italian flag.
The Bottom Line
Italian meals like your mother made (if you had an Italian mother). Food prepared from scratch, with the freshest ingredients, heavy on the garlic. A garlic lover’s paradise. Helpful & friendly service.
Cuisine: Southern Italian
Setting: Laid Back
Service: Helpful & Friendly
Hours: 11 a.m. -10:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat. 1 p.m.-10 p.m. Sun.
Location: Between Madison and Woodbine Streets
Parking: Street (If you can find it)
Credit Cards: All major
Children: Half orders
Off premise catering: Yes
Private parties: No
Handicap accessible: On street level