Grandma vs. gangster

Photo by David Robert

At Papa Joe’s Kitchen, food is all in the family. Of course, it’s unclear whether “the family” here means family in the good, wholesome dinner-at-mom’s sense of the word or if it’s The Family—as in, you know, the Sicilian Mafia. My dining companions were split on the matter—David pointed to the antiques and eye-catching memorabilia on the walls and, after noticing that all the employees seemed to be related, proclaimed the place to be “just like eating at Grandma’s.” Miranda, my other, more cynical—and perhaps even paranoid—dining companion threw some furtive glances around the room and whispered that she was pretty sure the joint was a mob front.

I had to admit there was some pretty good evidence in favor of the gangster argument. There was certainly a Sicilian feel to the place—which I guess isn’t all that strange for an Italian restaurant—and the music playing overhead was very gangster-like. At one point, they were even playing The Godfather theme. And their motto is “We’ll make you a meal you can’t refuse"—a mafia hint if I’ve ever heard one (and I’ve heard a lot). Of course, the most telling clue of the place’s gangster leanings was the host and server, Bryan, a tough guy with tattoos, slicked-back hair and sideburns. He was also as accommodating as a waiter can be—the only server I’ve ever had who threatened to steal my hubcaps and made it sound like a friendly thing.

At one point, when one of us wondered aloud whether or not we should get some more wine, Bryan immediately interjected with his Italian-by-way-of-New-York accent, “You want more wine? I’ve got just the thing for you—you’ll love it!” He was back instantly with a new carafe.

“Thanks,” we offered meekly.

“Don’t worry about it! I get wine from water, bread from stone—or however that goes . . . “

At this point, for some reason, maybe because he felt like he had something to prove, maybe just because he was trying to be polite, David asked Bryan where he was from.

“Oh, I’m from around here—I just watch a lot of gangster movies.” Bryan had suddenly lost all trace of his accent. “I have a bit of an identity problem,” he added.

The food was as good as you would expect from Chef Joe, a chef who may or may not have had to appease the stingy tastes of mafia dons. The appetizers and soup were both tasty—the fried artichoke hearts ($4.95) were a special standout, a must for anyone who likes dipping fried foods into marinara sauce. I had Nana’s Favorite Salmon ($13.95), and it had a great zesty lemon flavor that was complimented nicely by the accompanying risotto (pasta and polenta are also side options).

Partway through our meal, Chef Joe himself came out and asked how everything was. With just a little prodding, we were able to get him to talk about his restaurant. Chef Joe proudly pointed to a picture on the wall, explaining, “That’s my grandfather, Joseph Marsolas, ‘Papa Joe.’ He immigrated to America from Bisacquino, Sicily.” Chef Joe went on to describe how the interior of the restaurant was a partial recreation to his grandfather’s kitchen.

Now, the truth (i.e. my opinion) about the grandmother versus gangster debate is this: It’s a little bit of both—what fronts as a mafia dive is really a wholesome mom ‘n’ pop diner. And, boy, it sure is exciting to have a casual, mid-priced Italian place in town—and, even better, it’s Family-owned.