Look at my listing of restaurant reviews categorized by cuisine, and you'll see that Italian restaurants are not as well represented as the love that America holds for the pasta, olive olive oil, and tomato-heavy fare. Every one loooves Italian food. Except me. I just merely like it.
Yet, here I am in South Philadelphia, a melting pot bubbling over with Italian immigrants and their children, and their children's children. Italian restaurants are on every other corner, and a historic Italian Market is just a few blocks away from where I lay my head.
In an attempt to search out good Italian in the city (because I really do want to love Italian food with gusto), I've made a point to ask everyone I meet what their favorite Italian restaurant is. Consensus? There is none. With the exception of the high-end Italian restaurants Vetri and Osteria by Philly's Italian maestro Marc Vetri, I rarely hear any restaurant mentioned twice.
So, with no definitive leads, I've put off my quest for Italian for far too many years. That had to end.
Where did I start? Mr. Joe's Café, and one of the best deals in town!
Across the street from the South Philly Termini Bros. Bakery, a landmark in Philly Italian food history, sit's Mr. Joe's Café at the corner of 8th and Greenwich streets in what was the original 1921 location of Termini Bros. Bakery. Mr. Joe's Café is run by the Termini clan and the name pays tribute to Gaetano Termini, the brother of Guiseppe Termini, together the two founding Termini Bros.
Inside the unassuming corner rowhouse, is a cute and sleek café and lunch bistro with 9 or so 2-top granite tables and a counter bar that seats 6. Most of the patrons are locals from the neighborhood catching up with each other and cutely kvetching (can Italians kvetch?). Employees from Termini's drop by for a drink. First timers like myself drop in and are mesmerized by the framed immigration papers and family portraits on the wall. Kitchen implements and memorabilia from Termini's early days are encased in glass behind the counter. These aren't goods bought in Europe or at overpriced salvage firms and placed by a designer to lend authenticity to a restaurant's genre — like so many new restaurants are doing — this is a museum of the Termini family's history.
And like a museum, it is best to visit Mr. Joe's Café during the day when you have lots of time to sit and stay a while. Mr. Joe's doesn't do dinner, so you really have no choice but to visit in the day.
At Mr. Joe's you'll find monstrous pannini's, huge plates of pasta, large fritatas, as well as ginormous specials of the day like eggplant Parmesan printed on the chalkboard propped up on the sidewalk, all priced from $10-$14.
But when you place your entree order you get so, so much more! Salad, bread, complimentary wine, and complimentary dessert. You're going to need a while to eat your way out of Mr. Joe's Café.
Annamaria is your newly appointed doting Italian mother who wants you to eat, eat, and drink, drink. Linger long enough — as you will with the mounds of food to get through coupled with the unhurried service — and the complimentary glass of chilled Chianti jug wine will be refilled. Pinch me if this ain't heaven!The generous side salad of mixed baby greens is simply dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette and garnished with cucumbers and tomatoes.
Slices of hearty, crusty Italian bread arrive with the salad, but save it to swipe up the tomato sauce from your pasta. You did order pasta, right?A simple tomato sauce covers ravioli filled with fluffy ricotta sprinkled sparsely with spinach.The penne arrabiata with salty and assertive capers and olives is liberally doused with red pepper, giving a nice warm heat that made my lips tingle and nose run. There's easily enough pasta on this plate for two meals.
Compliments of the iconic Termini Bros. Bakery across the street is a dessert of the day — today, slices of angel-light carrot cake. Such a nice way to end the meal, even if there wasn't room to eat any more. Seriously, slap me hard this time if this ain't heaven!
Mr. Joe's also does coffee and espressos along with pastries, if you need a small pick-me up.
So, how was that for a start to my South Philly Italian restaurant conquests? Not bad at all! Solid, classic Italian dishes are cooked up homestyle with love and history, and all for an amazing bargain. Who can not love a smiling Italian woman offering free jug wine and free dessert?
Please tell me your favorite Italian restaurant in the comments, so they can go on my list.
Mr. Joe's Café
1514 S. 8th St., Philadelphia, PA 19147