At first glance, you’ve entered a neighborhood Italian restaurant in Boynton Beach. It might appear to sit in the shadow of the adjacent two-story, waterfront restaurant that’s attracting a boatload of traffic in the plaza.
And the menu – at first glance, it also appears to hit all the expected traditional notes. But then your dishes start to arrive and you get the sense there’s something special happening in the kitchen.
Indeed, there is: There’s a master in the kitchen at Josie’s Ristorante. He’s Mark Militello, James Beard Award-winning chef and one of the original Mango Gang-sters, a landmark chef who helped redefine, and refine, South Florida’s tropical-meets-world cuisine.
What does this mean for your plate at this tucked-away spot? Smoke effects? Infused foams? Thankfully, no.
Your plate here is a work of art for more organic reasons: quality ingredients, a chef’s soul in the cooking, and a high bar in the kitchen. It shines in simplicity and finesse.
Few dishes I’ve tasted make this case more eloquently than Josie’s black grouper dish ($32), a thick and ample fillet that’s pan roasted and served over wilted spinach in a scampi sauce that’s like a rich, lemony broth. Bright baby tomatoes and plump nuggets of jumbo crab complete the dish, which is sprinkled generously with fresh chopped parsley and presented with a juicy lemon half.
This was no puny portion. It was generous enough for leftovers.
As one might expect, there are plenty of Italian dishes here, from the traditional (as in spaghetti pomodoro and a lasagna layered with Bolognese-inspired prime beef sauce, béchamel and cheeses) to the more creative (like the beggar’s purse pasta stuffed with pears and cheeses in a pungent Taleggio and truffle cream).
One knockout option is the porcini ravioli ($24), large pasta pillows in a wild mushroom and onion sauce. Bits of pancetta (Italian bacon) lend smoky notes to the dish. It’s a creamy, satisfying entrée that’s large enough to share but delicious enough to scarf solo.
Even a simple pasta dish such as penne alla vodka ($20 entrée, $11.39 side) is a luxurious treat – al dente pasta bathed in a vodka-spiked, pale tomato cream that’s made sweeter by onions and smoky by prosciutto. A tangle of fresh basil shreds completes the heady dish.
With main courses so satisfying – plus a welcome basket of fresh, hot rolls and butter – one might think twice about indulging in appetizers. In hindsight, that is. It’s not so easy to peruse the antipasti starter menu – with its baked stuffed clams and scampi-sauced calamari and wood-grilled octopus – and not give into temptation.
Our whims led us to a brilliantly hued salad of red and gold beet cubes, Barolo-poached pears, baby tomatoes and arugula, crowned with a creamy orb of fresh burrata and presented with grilled baguette slices ($14). The salad proved to be beautifully balanced, with sweet beets and tomatoes, peppery greens and creamy fresh cheese.
We also sampled a sassy tuna ceviche ($16), served artfully scattered on a white platter. Hot jalapeño slivers topped fresh, raw tuna wedges, which share the plate with tiny tomatoes, diced avocado, arugula leaves, shredded nori and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
On my recent visit, early on a Saturday night, I found the place to be warm and approachable, and the service outstanding. Our server was well-informed on the menu and gave us some on-point wine advice.
He had guided us well during the meal, so we took his dessert suggestion and ordered the fresh-baked Italian cream cake ($7). A scrumptious decision. The cake is both rustic and elegant. It’s lightly nutty, thanks to walnuts in the batter, and creamy, thanks to its cream cheese frosting. It’s my favorite kind of dessert: decadent without being overly sweet.
As I savored dessert, I noticed a steady stream of diners, some families and larger parties among them, had filled many of the tables at Josie’s. A quick look at the tables told me pizza seems to be a popular choice at the restaurant.
I glanced out the large pane windows at the bustle outside Prime Catch, the big, free-standing restaurant that sits by Josie’s. Cars pulled up to the waterfront eatery as diners made their way inside. I’m sure their water view might be better than my parking lot view, I also knew Josie’s strengths are those one does not always see. They happen in the kitchen.
The good things happening in the kitchen are not broadcast to the world or branded for an epicure’s consumption. It’s happening quietly, earnestly: A chef once declared to be the best chef in the Southeastern United States has taken under his wing a young chef, Sebastiano Setticasi, who with his family owns the 24-year-old restaurant.
Militello has done more than apply a coat of varnish to the place. He’s delved into the core of what makes a great dish: premium product, keen attention to flavor details, soul.
Toss those elements into a bowl and you’ve got more than the expected tangle of pasta. You’ve got pasta that speaks the truth.
R E V I E W
ADDRESS: 1602 S. Federal Hwy (at Woolbright), Boynton Beach
PRICE RANGE: Moderate to expensive
NOISE LEVEL: Intimate
FULL BAR: Yes, a full liquor bar, with wine and beer served; separate bar area. Happy hour from 2 to 6 p.m. daily, with late-night happy hour from 9 p.m. to close.
HOURS: Open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
SUMMER DEAL: 25 percent off the entire menu (dine-in only). There’s also a new small plate menu offered at the bar and patio from 3 to 6 p.m., and after 9 p.m. daily.
CREDIT CARDS: Major cards accepted
RESERVATIONS: Accepted; walk-ins welcome.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
WHAT THE GRADES MEAN:
A — Excellent
B — Good
C — Average
D — Poor
F — Don’t bother