It was the cusp of the evening—a little after 6 pm—when we arrived at Restaurant Joanina on Sunday and the place was already hopping.
As I looked around at the enchanting décor, and watched extended families and large groups of friends gather for a celebratory meal, I knew that I was in for an extraordinary dining experience.
According to owners Bobby and Amy Oliva, Restaurant Joanina, which opened in 1998, has recently undergone some changes. A second dining room, with an Italian 'farmhouse' flair was added, and the wine shop, which opened two years ago, has been relocated so it is now directly adjacent to the restaurant.
Perhaps one reason that the establishment radiates with such warmth is that the design of Restaurant Joanina, clearly a labor of love, was very much a family affair.
According to Oliva, his father, James, designed the main dining area to resemble a Tuscan courtyard, and Amy's mother, artist Jackie Fisher, hand-painted the trompe l'oeil murals which provide figurative glimpses of the Italian landscape and adjoining courtyards. The result is a virtual feast for the eyes that embraces the real and the faux.
While shuttered windows overlook a pretend balcony, real trappings of glorious, sunny Tuscany include gurgling fountains, one complete with live koi, abundant statuary, and a profusion of flowers. In one corner of the main dining room, culinary accoutrements—fruit, jars of sauce, bottles of olive oil, and whimsical pottery, anchored by an old metal meat grinder—create a fanciful and colorful vignette.
But the decor had nothing on the food.
For starters, we ordered the cold seafood salad which was immediately a showstopper. Shrimp, tender calamari, scallops and mussels, marinated in the perfect blend of lemon and olive oil, is a seafood lover's dream that is also heart-healthy.
A special appetizer that night-- a fried soft shell crab, presented on a bed of mixed greens, was tantalizingly crispy and flavorful.
The Cavateli Bolognese is a superb main course. A mixture of beef, veal, onion and a hint of cream enlivens the sauce while the firm, bold cavateli are the perfect vessels. This dish is addictive!
We took a little walk on the wild side and ordered the 'Gamberi e Fagioli' although I was very tempted by the lasagna. Jumbo shrimp and Italian butter beans-- sautéed in garlic, olive oil, and rosemary, and served with fresh, mixed vegetables, and roasted potatoes- proved to be a taste sensation.
Many families were enjoying pizzas from the restaurant's brick-faced wood-burning oven, and I inquired about this mode of preparation.
"It's an ancient way to cook," Oliva said of the oven which is 100% wood-burning. Pizza is cooked on stone at a higher temperature than in a traditional oven, about 700 degrees more or less, which makes for an extremely crisp, thin crust.
Pizzas prepared in the wood-burning oven include margherita, pizza with prosciutto and arugula, pizza buon gusto ( showcasing grilled chicken and vegetables), and one with mushrooms.
Chicken is also roasted in the wood-burning oven. 'Polleto al Forno' is a semi-boneless baby chicken seasoned with rosemary and garlic while 'Pollo Scarpariello' is chicken on the bone partnered with homemade sausages, potatoes and hot cherry peppers.
The wood-burning oven is also a great way to prepare whole fish, which, depending on the season and the market, might include halibut, grouper or swordfish.
The fish are de-boned and the guests just love it, Oliva said.
In terms of desserts, although the nightly offerings may vary, homemade delicacies for which Restaurant Joanina has become renowned include tiramisu, Italian cheesecake and panna cotta.
Homemade biscotti, studded with almonds or pistachios, was our grand finale.
According to Oliva, the word "biscotti," means "twice-baked;" our biscotti owed their delightful crunch to being baked in a loaf and then cut into pieces and baked a second time.
The wine menu, which is broken down according to the regions of Italy, invites diners to step of the box, so to speak, when ordering an accompaniment to their meal. And if they enjoyed what they sampled at dinner, they can simply go next door and buy a bottle at the shop, Oliva indicated, adding that such a shop is referred to in Italian as "enoteca."
According to Oliva, his wine shop is strong on Italian wine, but also stocks other international wines, such as French and South American. The focus is on small production wines, the darlings of family-owned vineyards, and all price points are available.
Prices for appetizers range from $5.95 for minestrone soup to $10.95 for lightly breaded baked clams prepared with white wine and lemon. Salads, which serve two, and include Caesar salad, are $14.95. Pizzas range in price from $10.95 to $13.95, and pasta dishes are $15.95. Entrees showcasing chicken, veal, fish, or beef range from $18.95 for the Salmone al Pistacchio ( pistachio-encrusted salmon served over sautéed spinach) to $28.95 for Bistecca alla Griglia (grilled sirloin steak topped with sautéed onions and Portobello mushrooms). Whole fish, prepared in the wood-burning oven, varies according to market.
Restaurant Joanina is open for lunch at noon, Monday through Friday. Dinner is served from 5 to 10 pm Monday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. on Friday, 4 to 11 pm on Saturday, and 4 to 9:30 pm on Sunday. The restaurant is completely handicapped-accessible and there is a plethora of on-site parking.