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Review: At Josie's Ristorante, a taste of Mark Militello and ho-hum Italian

 

★★½

What happens when a long-running pizza-and-red-sauce joint joins forces with a James Beard Award-winning chef? If my recent meal at Josie’s Ristorante in Boynton Beach is any indication, there’s tantalizing promise tempered with rough edges. There’s the delight of Parmigiano pudding, an appetizer that’s light, custardy and a creative response to the ubiquitous burratas populating Italian menus. And then, there’s the disappointment of finding lemon pits in a busy, sloppy veal dish that’s been on the menu a long time, veal Bersaglieri, with its discordant notes of artichokes, olives, roasted red peppers and capers.

The Parmigiano pudding comes from the fertile imagination of Mark Militello, one of the original “Mango Gang” members who revolutionized South Florida dining a generation ago with Mark’s Place in North Miami and Mark’s Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale. That veal dish is a relic, hanging around Josie's regular menu the way loyal customers want the restaurant to cling to its comfortable past.

I’d say this is the point where Josie’s Ristorante needs to make a decision. If it wants to be ambitious and attract adventurous newcomers seeking out an old star, then be ambitious. If it wants to keep its clientele happy, then stick to the past. I don’t know if the middle ground is tenable, because that just might alienate both camps. Then again, I don’t sign the checks or balance the books, so maybe the middle ground is the best answer for now. Josie’s was packed on the Saturday night I visited, with a wait out the door and a party of 48 taking up the entire patio.

Josie’s has been around for 25 years, a family-run place in a strip mall near the Intracoastal. Militello, 61, has been here for over a year as consulting chef. He has pushed the menu forward and helped Sebastiano Setticasi, the chef de cuisine and 25-year-old son of the restaurant’s owner, find his culinary footing. Around the time Setticasi was born, Militello won a James Beard Award as best chef in the Southeast.

Militello apparently likes what he is doing at Josie’s, spending much time in the kitchen. He stuck around during the summer months, skipping his usual gig in the Hamptons. Militello’s touches are all over the daily specials menu, and he has tweaked the regular menu. Gone are complimentary soups and iceberg-lettuce salads with main courses. Now, there are a la carte salads, using fancy greens from nearby Swank Farm. There has been some pushback from older customers resisting change and higher checks.

The younger Setticasi loves working with Militello, who stresses simplicity and quality ingredients such as San Marzano tomatoes for sauces, and beef rib for meatballs. Setticasi is frustrated that customers are so set in their ways.

Take that terrific Parmigiano pudding ($14), a creamy mound Militello makes with eggs, cream, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, nutmeg and a dash of hot red pepper, surrounded by greens, roasted peppers and mushrooms. “It’s not selling,” Setticasi says in a follow-up interview. Meanwhile, he can’t take top sellers chicken Parmesan or lasagna off the menu, because there would be a diner mutiny.

Some entrées crack the $40 plateau, including a market-price cioppino that went for $44 on the night of my visit and a $42 filet-mignon special with red-wine reduction. Other prices have risen, too, including pastas that reach $30 and pizzas. That’s a big ask given the surroundings and service. The restaurant overlooks a parking lot. It has wooden tables and woven placemats, not white linen, and a big bar with televisions showing sports. The service is friendly and competent, but not fine-dining polished. When food runners arrive at tables, they ask diners who gets which dish, instead of knowing.

There were other unpleasant surprises that didn’t match the high price tag. When it came time to pay the check, I was told American Express wasn’t accepted. Small businesses sometimes resist Amex’s higher fees. Setticasi later told me it was a temporary halt arising from a business dispute, but I found a similar gripe in a 2013 Trip Advisor review online.

And there was something I’d never seen before in a restaurant: wine glasses with lines marked on them, presumably to indicate where bartenders should stop pouring. My tablemates and I found it tacky, but we took the bar out of the equation by ordering a bottle. The wine list was reasonable, with the markup only two times retail. Setticasi says he wants to encourage wine sales. He says the marked glasses were an aberration, a factory mistake that will soon be swapped out, used on a busy Saturday night out of necessity. “I want to smash them against a wall,” he told me later. “They should be used for McMerlot, at a McDonald’s that serves wine.”

Despite the large crowd, we were seated for our reservation right when we arrived, 10 minutes early. But we had to wait a long time for our bread, twin baskets of plain and garlic rolls that you find in many pizzerias. The garlic rolls were warm and good, bathed in olive oil and fresh minced garlic, but needed salt. The plain rolls were warm and yeasty, accompanied by unsalted butter. I had the feeling high-blood pressure medication and resulting dietary accommodations were in play. But any worries about food being underseasoned were allayed when appetizers arrived. And the kitchen did an admirable job getting all the food out in decent time, considering the big crowd.

The appetizers were good. Mussels fra diavolo ($16) had a vibrant sauce that tasted fresh and had the proper kick. A beet-and-goat-cheese salad ($9) was fine. Oysters Rockefeller ($16) were plump and creamy, using four large oysters from the Pacific Northwest. And we shared the beggar’s purse pasta ($26), luscious al dente pockets stuffed with pear and four cheeses. I was surprised to learn these aren’t housemade, but are shipped from Italy. Militello finishes the dish with a rich Taleggio cream sauce. It’s perfect for sharing.

Main courses slipped. The cioppino featured a bounty of seafood, but the shrimp and scallops didn’t pop. The saffron sauce was dull, and could have some depth from more fish stock or seafood shells. The filet mignon was average. Besides the clashing ingredients and lemon pits, the veal Bersaglieri ($30) had lemon-wine sauce with an unpleasant film on top, perhaps from sitting under a heat lamp. The winning entrees were a pasta special with wild mushrooms and shaved black truffle ($30) and eggplant Stefania ($22), grilled strips stuffed with angel-hair pasta and topped with melted cheese and red sauce. Not a refined dish, but a satisfying one.

Desserts ($9) were also hit and miss. A special tiramisu surrounded by a chocolate shell was supposed to have sea-salt caramel, but nobody at my table could taste it. A simple crème brulee served with cookies and berries was better.

When Militello is involved, expectations get raised. Josie’s still has to figure out the gap between potential and reality.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

JOSIE’S RISTORANTE

1602 S. Federal Highway, Boynton Beach

561-364-9601 or JosiesRistorante.com

Cuisine: Italian

Cost: Moderate-expensive. Dinner starters $8-$16, pastas $16-$30, mains $19-$44, desserts $9

Hours: Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m., until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Reservations: Accepted, through Open Table

Credit cards: Visa, M/C, Discover. American Express not accepted.

Bar: Full bar with reasonable wine list specializing in Italian reds

Sound level: Lively to loud

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Free lot

 

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