After several years of the tapas-inspired small-plates trend influencing practically every new restaurant in San Francisco, could big plates be the next new thing? If the crowds of happy diners inhaling the well-prepared and generously portioned Italian-American fare at Joey & Eddie's in North Beach are any indication, it might be time for a return to piled-high platters and family-style dining.
Joseph Manzare, chef-owner of three different admirable San Francisco restaurants — the Mediterranean Globe, Italian Zuppa, and Mexican Tres Agaves — has long wanted to open an old-fashioned Italian-American joint like the ones he remembered from his Bronx childhood, with partner Ed Maiello. When the venerable Moose's closed, with its prime location on Washington Square Park, the two swooped in. The place had recently been redecorated, so all they did was name the place after themselves and start dishing out Italian-American classics on thick white crockery from the big white open kitchen in back.
There's a little bit of a disconnect between the food and the decor, which is a touch more formal than you'd expect when ordering spaghetti and meatballs and chicken Parmesan. Rather than red-and-white-checked tablecloths, straw-wrapped Chianti bottles, and dusty plastic grapes, there's plush carpeting, burgundy velvet banquettes, and witty saffron-and-burgundy striped lampshades on the sconces. To make the place seem less formal, they've left tablecloths off the polished dark wood tables. Outside there's a row of woven-cane cafe tables and chairs in front of the huge plate-glass French windows overlooking the park. There's also a large and inviting open bar with a long communal table, separated from the main dining room by a series of three arches hung with thick burgundy drapes.
Despite the very high ceilings, the combination of the drapes, the carpeting, and the acoustical tiles results in a pleasant surprise: Even when the place is full, you can still hear each other speak, a novelty these days.
Much of what you'll be saying will be happy exclamations about the food. From the start, when warm fresh loaves of excellent, wheaty Italian bread are brought on a heated stone, accompanied by small square dishes of butter, olive oil, and red pepper flakes, the style of the house is announced: not just generosity, but quality and attention to detail. The menu offers 11 appetizers, nine pastas, eight meat and fish dishes, and five vegetable sides, plus a daily special.
The prices don't look out of line with those of the Italian restaurants in the neighborhood. Appetizers are between $8 and $19, pastas $19 to $23, and mains $24 to $27. (In some instances, the prices have gone up a couple of bucks since the place opened in April.) But trust both the menu — headed Family Style — and your server, who tells you the dishes will serve two to three: You get a lot of food for the money. Exclamations of awe will escape when you see the huge bowls of Caesar ($16) or Joey & Eddie's salad (iceberg lettuce, salami, pickled Italian peppers, provolone, red wine vinaigrette, $19) pass by: enough for an army.
And it's not just big food; it's good food with top-quality ingredients, thoughtfully prepared. This is what gave Italian home cooking a good name. The assorted antipasti ($18) comes in four bowls on a special wood platter and includes quartered Chioggia beets in a light vinaigrette with snipped chives; grilled fennel brushed with balsamic vinegar; grilled radicchio; and luscious oily housemade tuna conserva tricked out with pickled onions and carrots. It's a terrific assortment of flavors and textures. The baked clams oreganata ($14) works out to $2 a clam, but they're big and splendid, the whole clams tender under a light stuffing of breadcrumbs, lots of garlic, and oregano, swimming in buttery oil flecked with parsley that's begging to be sopped up with the Italian bread. One stunning vegetable side that makes a terrific starter is the gamboni mushrooms ($9), thick succulent slices of the long fungus (also known as big leg), roasted to a golden brown with crispy sliced garlic. Other starters include calamari ($19), a finocchiona salami (a pork Tuscan-style salami, flavored with fennel seed) plate ($11), sweet Italian sausage brought spitting to the table in an iron skillet ($12), and a massive baked stuffed artichoke ($14).
Among the expected spaghetti and meatballs ($24), linguine and clams (with red or white sauce, $24), and spaghetti with extra virgin olive oil and garlic ($19) are a few more unusual pastas. The al dente spaghetti with chubby crab ($23) is topped with a delectable mixture of Dungeness crab lumps and the crab innards, sautéed with white wine, parsley, oil, and garlic; plump cloves of roasted garlic dot the pasta. Fat tubes of rigatoni come simply dressed with bright-green broccoli rabe and big fat brown Corona beans, creamy under their thin skins ($19), in quintessential Italian style, with just a bit of a simple sauce made from the cooking liquids. You can add sausage to make this a heartier dish for $5 more.
The stunning and stunningly good main course is the pork braciole, pork ribs, meatballs, and sausage in tomato gravy ($27) — enough food for an army. The firm rolled pork braciole is stuffed with breadcrumbs heady with herbs, garlic, and Parmesan cheese. The big meatballs are made from a Manzare family recipe from equal parts of veal, pork, and beef, flecked with green, and are surprisingly delicate. The fat sausage is nicely spiced, a little hot. The dense chewy ribs are perhaps a trifle overcooked, but that's traditional, as is the sweet, thick tomato "gravy" ladled over it all. This is exactly the kind of dish Carmela Soprano labored over for her family to feast on. (Don't order it with the spaghetti and meatballs, because the meatballs and the sauce are identical.) Next to it, the platter of four pounded-thin veal saltimbocca, draped in prosciutto, dusted with sage and swimming in a shiny sweetish Madeira sauce cleverly dotted with leaves of bitter arugula ($26), looked wimpy.
At Joey & Eddie's, a group of four could order, say, a salad, a main course and a pasta dish, and that would suffice. Couples had better resign themselves to sharing the same dish or toting a lot of food home. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!) The tables seem too small to hold the piled-high platters.
A few quibbles: We wish the short list of vegetable sides (broccoli rabe, spinach with lemon and garlic) included something like polenta to sop up the delicious juices, sauces, and gravies. The servers who volunteer that the kitchen will prepare you half-orders of some of the dishes should also mention the prices are quite a bit more than half (the chubby crab is $17 rather than $23 for the full order, rigatoni $15 rather than $19; you just might decide to get the whole order and take the leftovers home). Indeed, the servers seem cheerful but a trifle clueless, returning to check on orders they'd greeted with "Got it!" but apparently hadn't, and most egregiously disappearing from sight for long periods of time. Ordering a second cocktail or dessert is an exercise in patience.
Skipping dessert might have been the better idea. The cannoli ($14, $8 for a half-order) was a limp, almost-soggy disappointment, with shells filled so far in advance with an innocuous cream that they'd lost their essential crispness. The highly touted tiramisu ($12, $7 for a half-order) was a polite, cakey version of what can be a voluptuous espresso-and-Marsala–scented creamy delight. But as we exited into the North Beach night, dusky blue sky highlighting the Washington Square trees, we felt well fed and very content. Joey & Eddie's is a welcome addition to North Beach for tourists and locals alike.