YUM! A mound of Italian goodness at Jo Jo's.
Since there are more Italian restaurants on Federal Hill than potholes on Providence sidestreets, it's easy for newcomers without favorite spots to just go home and order Chinese delivered. Considering the distracting profusion, some unassuming places that are worthy of attention may not even be considered — places like Uncle Jo Jo's Pizza & Pasta.
The name itself is so unpretentious it might as well be called Aw Shucks. But don't feel sorry for them: they immediately follow that up — on awning as well as menu — with "Home of the Brick Oven Pizza." (Take that, Al Forno, with your fancypants wood grill pizza.)
I happened onto and into the place a few months ago with a couple of friends, more for the conversation than the eats, thereby expecting the food to fade into the background like mood music. After chowing down, we were impressed enough to talk about coming back with our wives. I didn't take notes, but I recall that the pasta special widened my eyes with its quantity as well as its delicate white sauce. The menu declares "All Pasta Cooked Al Dente." All dinner items are available for lunch.
Uncle Jo Jo's isn't trying to wow us with its decor like some overstuffed restaurants on the Hill. It's simply neat and clean, with enough Italian scenery on the walls that you don't ask for chopsticks. Seating for 28, by my count, all two-tops easily gather together for groups. Full of light during the day, with floor-to-ceiling windows street-side.
Signature dishes are a good start here and an indication of what they take pride in. The antipasto della casa ($9.95/$17.95) has marinated vegetables, a good touch, among the imported Italian cold cuts and cheeses. There's the insalata alla Tony ($9.95), which has walnuts, avocado, and radicchio with the tomato and Romaine; the insalata alla Jo Jo ($10.95) has tuna and hard-boiled egg supplementing arugula. The fried calamari ($9.95) is the conventional Rhode Island version, but the hot appetizers include panzerotti ($8.95), about which more later. There are nearly 20 pastas, including specials, plus three risottos ($14.95-$19.95), combined with something as simple as zucchini or mushrooms and Parmesan cheese or as bountiful as five kinds of seafood.
The one item that lured Stuart and me here was the tripe ($6.50), which was temptingly on the specials chalkboard and fortunately was there again. A full order can be too much, and neither of us could think of anyone else willing to share the dish, so here we were again. Each of the half-orders brought to us filled a regular soup bowl. The rich red gravy begged for some of the Italian bread we had been served with herbed-up olive oil, combining nicely with the not-too-fat pieces of tripe. Our anticipation was fulfilled.
The other dish we started with was that panzerotti, two deep-fried lengths of pizza dough filled with mozzarella and prosciutto and served with a tangy marinara sauce. This is the kind of appetizer that you order again when you come again, even if there are other temptations. It reminded me of the fried calzones, stuffed with ham and ricotta, that I used to enjoy as a boy in New Jersey, but these were far lighter, the dough rolled very thin before frying. Wonderful.