Moving from Southern California to New Jersey at age 14, New York first revealed to me what a true city is. When in that NY state of mind (Billy Joel playing in the background helps), I miss its boundless energy, frank people, eclectic neighborhoods and brownstones, and, yes, East Coast-style Italian. Both in the city and Jersey suburbs where I spent part of my youth, 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 often was perfect (I miss you, Cafe L’Amore).
Though SF is rife with incredible Italian food (and a dense population and history of Italian influence) in from many styles and regions, it can be challenging getting my red sauce Italian fix here – that style particular to and really invented on the East Coast vs. in Italy. 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.
ORIGINAL JOE’S, North Beach (601 Union St. at Stockton, 415-775-4877)
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 an older set dining here, a factor I welcome and at times seek out intentionally. It’s simultaneously families, couples, SF natives, and tourists mingling in this new home for a restaurant that has been in SF since 1937 until a 2007 fire closed its Tenderloin doors. Though impossible to replicate the original locale’s divey ’70’s charm, the new space feels more old school NY than modern-day tourist trap. Roomy red leather booths and a tuxedoed waitstaff hearken back and 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. Comfort doesn’t get much better 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), though 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 more than a little 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. This isn’t craft cocktails so much as 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 and candied orange peel on top, demanding me to rethink, and once again enjoy, this classic ice cream rumored to have Neapolitan roots.
This isn’t revolutionary gourmet or cutting edge cuisine. But what Joe’s 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 in a neighborhood that fiercely maintains reverence for and ties to that history. Amidst SF’s influx of tech culture and expats from everywhere, 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.