Father/son developers Tony and Joey Goldman own more than 20 commercial properties near NW 28th Street and Second Avenue in the Wynwood Arts District. Until recently, their real estate portfolio was akin to a philatelist's unfilled album — just so many pages of drawings and plans. But on December 1, Joey's, a 70-seat Italian café, became the first blueprint to breathe life — and the first new restaurant to make its mark in Wynwood since the area began its slow-mo metamorphosis into an arts district a decade ago. As Joey's promo so nimbly trumpets: Here comes the neighborhood.
The neighborhood isn't here yet, which is to say it remains a bit iffy — but there are plenty of parking spots nearby, and iffy that's not good enough, you can pull right up to the entrance and receive complimentary valet service. Once ensconced in the foliage-wrapped 35-seat outdoor patio or seated by the brick hearth oven inside the minimalist 35-seat dining room, you will be transported to another place entirely.
Most likely that place will be Italy. Chef Ivo Mazzon is from Veneto, and his food pledges that region's allegiance to fresh ingredients simply prepared. Take the spaghetti pomodoro: staunch strands of semolina with a sauté of ripe red tomatoes, fresh basil, and a hint of garlic and olive oil. Take, too, the same homemade spaghetti dappled with a dozen littlenecks and a clam sauce buoyed by white wine, garlic, and parsley. Keep taking and taking, because pastas are consistently delicious and considerately priced. A hefty half-order of the pomodoro, ideally sized for a pre-entrée course, is $5; a full plate (double the portion) is $7. Pasta with clam sauce is $8/$14. Add a small house salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, cornichons, baby onions, and fresh orange juice-olive oil dressing for $3 (not a typo), or a large one for $5. Be a sport — you can afford to here — and pay the extra few dollars to enjoy a distinctive salad of radicchio leaves, red grapes, and flakes of bacalao ($10). Or for the same price, try the rustic beef stew; the meat is tenderly braised in a mild tomato sauce that seeps into pecorino-flecked polenta below. Lots of restaurateurs tout token discounts and talk the populist talk; Joey's walks the walk.
Joey's: 2506 NW Second Ave., Miami; 305-438-0488. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Joey's likewise slices the slices of imported cold cuts and cheeses such as speck, cacciatorini (a dry salami), pecorino pepato (sheep's milk cheese with peppercorns), and grana padano. There are a few ways to order them, but we like the modest sampler of three choices compiled from either category for $16. Another savvy starter comes via thin-crusted pizzas that emerge from a brick oven behind a glass showcase window in the dining room. The tomato-mozzarella–adorned margherita gratifies with a quiet, well-balanced taste; the dolce e piccante pie explodes in the mouth via sweet/hot/pungent outbursts of Gorgonzola cheese, honey, spicy red pepper flakes, and slices of fresh figs — a brilliant array of flavors.
Main courses hit the target too. Translucent flakes of grouper flesh mesh naturally with a fetching sauté of eggplant, sweet ripe tomato, and fresh basil. A thin, wide sirloin steak was equally edifying, and like the grouper, it was accompanied by verdure cotte — spinach, fennel, and Swiss chard braised Old World-style to soft splendor (also offered as a side dish for $5). And zucchine alla parmigiana, served in a hot cast-iron pan, answers the age-old question: How can a bland, worthless vegetable such as zucchini be made tasty? Seems it simply takes homemade marinara sauce and melted cheese — although it would have been even better if the thin strips of zucchini were breaded.
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A concise but brilliantly assembled wine selection is chock full of regional Italian choices, many from small vineyards, quite a few under $40 and even $30 (and available by the glass for less than $10). Super Tuscans cost a bit more, and Bordeaux first-growths, intended for high rollers, a whole lot more. But most bottles are marked up only two to two and a half times. If you aren't well versed in grape-and-food pairings, I suggest you bring a pamphlet that will offer guidance; the waiters don't possess much knowledge in this field. Owners Joey and Thea Goldman have admirably reached out to the community by hiring locals to wait tables, but it is, sadly, a case of the road to poor service being paved with good intentions. The staff is polite enough, but generally clueless about the food and what constitutes attentive help. At one point, a diner at the table next to ours attempted to catch a waiter's attention by flailing his arms like a sinking swimmer at sea. Said server was nonchalantly leaning on a wall across the patio, gazing toward the man but oblivious to his frantic signals.
The lapse between courses was consistently lengthy — not just on one occasion, and not only in regard to our table. This might be at least partly attributable to the service staff, but such delays more commonly connote kinks in the kitchen. Either way, waiting for desserts was like waiting for Godot (Estragon: "What do we do now, now that we are happy?" Vladimir: "Wait for ricotta and strudel.") Our angst heightened each time a waiter came by to announce the treats were on their way. The first such promising proclamation was made after ten minutes; the next followed an equal time later.
One of the two desserts, an ice cream scoop of sheep's milk ricotta, was delivered shortly afterward. Only a trifle sweetened, the cheese was surrounded by a fresh berry sauté and drizzled with chestnut honey — luscious, really, and especially well suited for those of subtle sweet tooth. After we had finished it, our apple strudel finally appeared. The fruit was bound by a tasty vanilla egg custard, but the dessert was cold and the phyllo crust a soggy mockery of the real thing. We were not charged for either of the tardy selections.
Another waiting game must take place before Wynwood gets stamped with a colorful café life. In the meantime, Joey's, with its honest food and great value, is as promising a first lick as any neighborhood could hope for.