Every city needs those restaurants that move blissfully through the decades, anchored as a reliable source of sustenance to the regulars. We have a few of those in the heart of the city, and one of those stalwarts, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is Joseph's Italian Restaurant.
It's small but reliably crowded on weekends, and our recent visit on a Friday was no exception. Customers were milling about outside in the mild spring evening weather. We got on the list and were seated within 30 minutes. The regulars move a bit faster through the dining experience.
If you haven't been to Joseph's, don't expect the high-end Italian you might find at Mama Tosca or Little Italy. What you will get is a restaurant that makes all its own sauces, shows a modest respect for garlic and knows how to make a pizza oven produce great calzones.
Please avoid my mistake. The medium Joseph's special calzone we ordered ($17.95) was so massive that it had two large knives stuck in its side, as if it needed to be stabbed twice to get it to our table. It resembles a folded-over pizza, which is how one of my companions explained it to her daughter, and it was filled with mushrooms, onions, black olives, ham, pepperoni, salami, with red sauce on the side. It always has the most beautiful brown crust on top, practically inviting a cellphone picture.
On that particular visit we also tried a large margarita pizza ($18.95), made with tomato chunks, mozzarella, a fair amount of garlic and a sprinkling of fresh basil. Judging from the outside of the crust, it had been brushed with olive oil. On both of these pizzas, one of my companions noted a heavy use of salt, a trend that is becoming a dividing point in our culinary adventures. Those watching their sodium intake for health reasons have to limit their visits to the old-school places like Joseph's. Neither pizza was offensively brackish, but it was noticeable. I think I'm just more tolerant of a heavy hand than some.
On another dinner visit, I ignored the reasonable temptation to order the ravioli or gnocchi, which I've always enjoyed, and we ordered new-to-us treats: the pork chops ($15.95) and the nightly special of a chicken breast stuffed with spinach, ham, asparagus, mozzarella cheese, roasted red peppers and just a pinch of puttanesca sauce to add some real punch.
The word stuffed is really pushing it, as the food was all over it, on top, spilling out and on the plate. The combination was winning, with the fresh asparagus a particularly charming touch. I had never had the three thin pan-fried pork chops here, and what makes them special was the sauteed whole fresh button mushrooms on top, which were great sliced up with each bite. Both dinners had pasta on the side, and I chose rigatoni over spaghetti or vegetables.
This is a restaurant with some idiosyncrasies. For example, there is a short wine list, but with the exception of two Italian wines, the winery supplying the Chianti or cabernet, for example, is not listed. Those passionate about wine would turn up their nose at that. House wine by the glass is only $4.25, or $9.95 for a half carafe, and they do offer their burgundy either chilled or at room temperature.
The interior, though dated, is as comfortable as an old coat. The benches and metal chairs in the narrow dining room are close together, but not to the point that you feel your privacy has been violated. With the darkness and the dark wood paneling, it feels like something out of "Goodfellas." If Bakersfield had mobsters, they'd meet here, seated in the back and served the usual with minimal waitress contact.
Service is pleasant and cheerful from a staff that shows exemplary teamwork. The only snafu was getting the wrong bill initially on one visit, but that was quickly corrected.
Joseph's can be recommended for a fine dining experience.