Original Joe's old school Italian conjures New Jersey nostalgia
APPETITE After moving from Southern California to New Jersey at age 14, I learned what a true city was when I discovered New York City. Whenever in that New York state of mind, I miss its boundless energy, frank people, eclectic neighborhoods, and, yes, East Coast-style Italian. I reminisce about family dinners filling up on mountains of cheese, doughy pasta, and impeccable red sauce — which, to achieve perfection, should exhibit both sweet and savory notes. In both NYC and NJ, it was often perfect. (I miss you, Cafe L'Amore).
It can be challenging getting my red sauce Italian fix here. I crave old school, heartwarming places, whether drinking a Manhattan in the brilliant time capsule of Joe's of Westlake, dining on Gaspare's "real deal" lasagna, Mozzeria's oozing, baked mozzarella, or a plate of my beloved guanciale (pig jowl bacon) and garlic-heavy spaghetti alla matriciana at Ristorante Marcello. Enter Original Joe's, a reborn San Francisco classic appealing to a blessedly broad demographic, satisfying East Coast cravings.
You couldn't be blamed for initially assuming the sizable Original Joe's off North Beach's idyllic Washington Square Park is a tourist destination or primarily for older clientele. There is a more mature set dining here, a factor I welcome and at times seek out intentionally. But families, couples, residents, and tourists alike mingle in this new home for a restaurant founded here in 1937, yet closed since a 2007 fire at its Tenderloin location. Though impossible to replicate the original locale's dive-y 1970s charm, the new space feels more old school NYC than modern-day tourist trap. Roomy red leather booths and a tuxedoed waitstaff immediately comfort.
The food surprises with an amped-up dose of quality compared to the old days on Taylor. A market price crab cocktail is expensive at $25 but the crab is clean and plentiful. A daily special of fresh burrata and Spring pea salad could have come from any current SF restaurant. Joe's Italian chopped salad ($15.95) ends up being one of the quickest transports East. Ordering it to share, it arrives split, a half portion plenty for one. Chopped romaine is doused in Italian dressing, with garbanzo beans, olives, cherry tomatoes, silvers of salami, provolone, fennel, and the necessary pepperoncini. It's brighter — and almost as satisfying — than heavier, loaded versions I used to fill up on back in Jersey.
As in the old Joe's, there's plenty of tender, juicy beef, from flat iron steak ($24) to a porterhouse (25 oz. at $44) and prime rib on Saturdays. But when in such an setting, I crave red sauce. It doesn't get much comfier than spaghetti with meat sauce ($13.95) or meatballs ($16.95). Even if Joe's is not the superlative version, it hits the spot, as does classic ravioli ($16.95), although I tend to prefer Jackson Fillmore's housemade ravioli over the years. Another way to my East Coast Italian heart is parmigiana, whether chicken, veal, or eggplant. Here I'm drawn to the eggplant ($16.95), not too smoky, layered in cheese, breading, and, of course, red sauce.
I was tickled to find that $6 cocktails, including simple but revered favorites like a whiskey sour or negroni, are actually well-made — completely unexpected and at this price, one of the best drink values in town for solid classics.
Another unexpected pleasure is impeccable spumoni for dessert ($5 for a few generous scoops). Often in spumoni, unnatural cherry, chocolate and pistachio ice cream flavors are cluttered with nuts and candied fruits in what feels like a dated flavor that should be relegated to the past. Joe's version delivers authentic, rich flavor with smattering of crumbled pistachios on top, demanding me to rethink, and once again enjoy, this classic ice cream rumored to have Neapolitan roots.
Joe's isn't revolutionary gourmet or cutting edge cuisine, but what it does, it does well. Its clientele reminds me of the history and sense of place San Francisco possesses that makes it one of the truly great cities in the world, now ideally situated in a neighborhood that fiercely maintains reverence for and ties to that history. Amid SF's influx of tech-attracted newbies, Joe's attracts that breed we often forget is here: the San Francisco native. Feeling like a family/group restaurant first and foremost, it's a place I'd bring visiting family and Sicilian relatives with hefty portions and friendly service. But I've also had a cozy date night with my husband here, transported to decades past... but with fresher ingredients.
601 Union, SF.
Subscribe to Virgina's twice-monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot, www.theperfectspotsf.com