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.
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.
Many of the pastas and salads are also available on Joseph's lunch menu. There are also half a dozen sandwiches, as well as strombolis and...wait for it..."St. Louis Style" pizza. Stromboli with sausage and pepperoni featured meat and mozzarella stuffed into layers of dense, sweet dough. Though I could have used more stuffing, the dough itself was a wonderful surprise like funnel cake at the state fair. The pizza surprised me, but not in a good way. Lewis doesn't use Provel, but he might as well have: The mozzarella suffered from the dreaded "Provel Effect," yielding a pizza that went down like a bad alfredo sauce spread on a cracker.
When I came for dinner at seven-thirty on a Saturday, Joseph's was almost empty. I knew there were people downtown tens of thousands of them, in fact. The Cards were hosting the Brewers. Kenny Wayne Shepherd was playing Live on the Levee. Market Street was lit up for Strassenfest. When hasn't the city turned out for baseball, blues, bratwurst and beer?
Our server a very friendly, articulate fellow named Dave who knew the menu and supplied good recommendations didn't seem worried, though. He said they'd been packed right before the ballgame and expected at least one large party later on. And sure enough, as we were paying our check, the crowds started drifting by, peering through the windows at Joseph's dizzyingly bright décor: big crimson protea flowers against Technicolor walls.
Clearly, Lewis has the skill to produce good food maybe even great food. But I'm not ready to bet the villa on it. Throwing in your lot with St. Louis Italian is understandable: It's tough to open a restaurant anywhere, let alone a drab stretch of Sixth Street next door to a Wendy's and across from a T.G.I. Friday's. The red-sauce/white-sauce gambit has lined a lot of pockets in this town. But that success has come at the expense of culinary imagination and evolution.
So now I get it: I have met Joseph, and he is us.