Red and White Blues

Are you brave enough to stare down the barrel of the culinary assault rifle that is "St. Louis Italian"?

I had to read the menu twice to be sure. It was in small print, at the end of the list of ingredients. A mistake, I hoped. A misprint. A trick of the light.

No. It was true. Joseph's serves pasta primavera in red sauce.

I don't claim to be the world's leading authority on Italian cuisine. Hell, when I was a kid, chicken Parmesan meant a Weaver breaded chicken patty topped with Kraft shredded mozzarella in Ragú sauce. And I loved it. If I ever want to get unstuck on the novel I'm writing, I'll whip up a batch and jump-start a Proustian moment.

Joseph's: Safe 'n' saucy since 1994.
Jennifer Silverberg
Joseph's: Safe 'n' saucy since 1994.

Location Info

Map

Joseph's Italian Cafe

107 N. 6th St.
St. Louis, MO 63101

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: St. Louis - Downtown

Details

Joseph's
107 North Sixth Street, 314-421-6366. Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner 5-10:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 5-11:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

Italian vegetable appetizer $12
Pistachio crusted goat cheese salad $9
Gnocchi diablo $15
Carbonara tortellini $14
Pork saltimbocca $22

But I do know that pasta primavera cannot possibly be served in red sauce. It's a contradiction in terms.

I'm a man of principle. I couldn't eat such a thing. So I ordered the pork saltimbocca instead.

Traditionally, saltimbocca is made with veal. Thin slices of veal. Executive chef Jared Lewis substitutes a massive pork rib chop. If this pork chop were any bigger, you'd get your name inscribed on a plaque for finishing it. As is custom, Lewis wraps the pork chop in a slice of prosciutto and stuffs it with herbs. Which herbs — sage is commonly used in saltimbocca — I couldn't tell you. Whether the prosciutto was true prosciutto di Parma or di San Daniele, I couldn't tell you. Subtlety of flavor was the collateral damage in this pork-on-pork assault.

It's an audacious dish. And on a primal level, very satisfying. The crisp slice of prosciutto combined with the seared pork chop offers the carnivorous pleasure of a steak from your backyard grill. If it had been any bigger, my name would have been on that plaque.

That's the problem, though. Saltimbocca means "jump in mouth" — as in: It's so good it'll jump right up into your mouth, maybe do a little boogie while it's there. In other words, it's a playful dish. The notion of a chef playfully pairing two cuts of pork as different as prosciutto and a rib chop — the delicate and the meaty — is intriguing, but Lewis doesn't pair them so much as fuse them. The result is filling but unmemorable (aside from the size). On my way home, all I could think about was that episode of The Simpsons where Homer commands Bart, "Bacon up that sausage, boy!"

Joseph's opened in 1994, on Sixth Street just north of Kiener Plaza, as Joseph's Italian Cafe. "Joseph" was Joseph Consolo III. New owners Joel Kulander, Chris Whitworth and John Donahue, who reopened the restaurant in December of last year for lunch only and added a dinner menu in April, shortened the name to Joseph's. Kind of odd, I thought, given that Joseph is no longer involved. Then again, the Italian food — St. Louis Italian, that is: safe, sauced and blandly satisfying — remains.

Lewis seems to be striving for something more in the kitchen, but he continually falls just short. An "Italian Vegetable Appetizer" should have been flawless. It's a bright, fresh antipasto platter: marinated artichoke hearts, roasted red and yellow peppers, an Italian sausage, a traditional olive tapenade and a "tapenade" of sun-dried tomatoes. The tomato tapenade looked like a clump of tomato paste but tasted delicious, tart and sweet. The "mild" sausage had a surprisingly deep, autumnal fennel flavor. But the platter didn't include anything on which to spread the tapenades or artichoke hearts except large, airy slices of Italian bread, too flimsy to hold such substantial spreads.

"Peppered Beef Carpaccio" was a tantalizing garnet red, but the meat had been sliced too thick and the lemon-caper vinaigrette was way heavy on the lemon. "Pistachio Crusted Goat Cheese" salad was excellent. Well, the salad was fine — how excited can you get about baby greens, no matter how fresh? — but the cheese was fantastic, a disc of chévre coated with slivered pistachios, then baked golden-brown. I would have ordered the cheese on its own. In truth, I wish I could have: The portion that accompanied the salad was small, and it lost its strength when spread around all the greens. These are small considerations, but they add up. (Speaking of small considerations, the wine list is brief, and stocked with twelve-buck supermarket labels — Rosemount Estate shiraz, Robert Mondavi "Private Selection" pinot noir, etc. When we asked for an espresso at the end of dinner, we learned that Joseph's doesn't have an espresso machine.)

Other dishes fell prey to more fundamental breakdowns. The grilled chicken in the "Chicken and Wild Mushroom Risotto" added no flavor, just body. This was a shame, because the risotto itself was quite good, thanks in part to a verdant bite from the sautéed spinach that was folded in. The cutlets for the veal marsala were appropriately thin, but they'd been on the heat too long. Not unpleasant, but they'd lost the tenderness that makes veal so exquisite. Worse, Lewis plated the dish with mashed potatoes, which killed the delicate flavor of the marsala reduction, turning what should have been a light dish into a chore.

Lewis fares better with pastas (pasta primavera in red sauce notwithstanding). "Gnocchi Diablo" featured house-made gnocchi that were perfect — substantial but far from leaden — and the mild heat of the sauce brought out the sweetness in the sausage and peppers. Carbonara tortellini wasn't a carbonara at all; but it was hard to argue with the ricotta-stuffed pasta combined with crisp bacon, fresh peas and tomatoes, dressed with a straightforward alfredo sauce.

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