Sourdough will rise above shortfalls every time

EATS

Dining For $25 Or Less

June 01, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

So what happens when a philosophy major who wants to open a pizza and sub shop doesn't get the location he wants in Charles Village? He walks down the street.

And he keeps walking until he finds a vacant storefront. Then he opens his restaurant there.

And that, according to Joe Edwardsen, is why he opened his Joe Squared Pizza and Bar in a borderline-unsavory stretch of North Avenue.

It's easy to imagine that this restaurant would have been a smash hit in Charles Village, but on North Avenue, it feels like the right restaurant in the wrong place. That feeling is amplified by the bags of garbage by the entrance on the night we visited, the television sets over the bar and the pool table taking up most of the dining area. The interior, frankly, is off-putting.

Even the menu is confusing, with tiny print and a seemingly endless array of choices. Want potato skins ($6)? You can get them with broccoli and cheddar, meatball and mozzarella, bacon and cheddar or bacon, egg and cheddar. Or ask about the "skin of the day."

Buffalo wings ($7.50) come with seven sauces, including chocolate-walnut and ginger-pine nut, plus the sauce of the day. And don't get me started on the pizza toppings, which are described in very confusing categories on the menu.

But forget all that. The real story with Joe's is the food, especially the amazing sourdough crust that elevates the subs and pizzas to high art. One of my favorite entrees was a lamb cheese steak ($12), served on the terrific bread, with thin slices of marinated and roasted meat instead of the usual chopped beef, Asiago cheese in place of Velveeta, caramelized onions and roasted red peppers for flavor, and lettuce, tomatoes and mayo to round out the dance of flavors.

This ain't your ordinary cheesesteak, but it's typical of the panache that Joe's brings to its food. The only complaint here was that the bread, though deliciously tangy, was overly chewy. Edwardsen said he's working on that, and has already figured out a way to make the bread softer.

The same sourdough livens the pizzas, which are rolled through a press to make them thin and - as the restaurant's name suggests - square. These become the crunchy tabula rasas for almost any ingredient you can name, including apples, corn, tofu, salami, venison, chicken, crawfish and clams.

And if those choices aren't enough, there are suggested combinations, such as barbecued chicken pizza with avocado, corn, spinach, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, and Vidalia onions ($14). This particular pizza was as delicious as it sounds, partly because the chicken, coated in a mildly sweet barbecue sauce, had been diced into hearty squares that provided a nice counterpoint for the stronger flavors of onion and cheese.

Garlic plays a major role at Joe's, and his garlic sauce adorns many pizzas, including a flag pizza ($12) divided into thirds to resemble an Italian flag, pesto for the green, marinara for red and garlic and cheeses for white. All good, but that garlic sauce is really, really garlicky. My advice: Make sure everyone at your table has a taste, so you all have equally stinky breath.

Salads are just as Dagwood-sandwichy as the pizzas, with a seeming overload of ingredients that somehow works. The mushroom salad ($9) contains spinach, roasted peppers, red onion, mushrooms, onions and hard-cooked egg, all coated (a little overzealously) in a garlic vinaigrette.

The staff at Joe's is super-nice, and even at times impressive, as when my friend and I switched seats and our waiter still remembered who got what drink. But he got one dish wrong: We wanted linguine with clam sauce ($9) and wound up with fettuccine Alfredo ($8) instead.

This mistake let us sample the least successful dish of the night, a very heavy combination of ingredients that stuck like glue to overcooked pasta.

Edwardsen, who graduated from Goucher College in 2003 with a philosophy degree, is not exactly new to the kitchen. He's worked at Tersiguel's, Ze Mean Bean and other respected restaurants. And he's constantly tweaking his new venture. Already, he has plans to overhaul the interior, adding banquettes and chucking the pool table to create a classier atmosphere.

Considering his educational background, it's not surprising that he's philosophical about the poor track record of the site, where no restaurant seems to last long.

"I think the neighborhood is turning around," he said.

Joe Squared Pizza and Bar

Where:

133 W. North Ave.

Call:

410-545-0444

Open:

4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday-Sunday

Credit cards:

All major

Prices:

Appetizers $4-$10, entrees $6-$18

Food:

*** (3 stars)

Service:

** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere:

** (2 stars)

[Outstanding:**** Good:*** Fair or uneven:** Poor:*

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