June 17, 2005
My friend Jeff doesn't care too much about restaurants. He eats in them but he'd just as soon eat food cooked on an open fire or a camp stove. So naturally when he mentioned Jovito's Italian Café; 12309 State Line Rd., I thought it worth investigating.
Out past Barstow School, Hallbrook and some of the city's other tonier subdivisions, Jovito's shares a little strip mall with a bike shop and a carryout pizza shop. The wooded lots surrounding the little parking lot make the restaurant hard to spot when heading south on State Line.
Jeff didn't tell me about the restaurant's pedigree. A sign in the window proclaims owner Joe Scaglia the "inventor of the meatball grinder" and founder of Mario's in Westport. No longer affiliated with the Kansas City institution he opened with brothers Mario and Phil in the late 60s, Scaglia opened the 40-seat Jovito's in November ‘02 as a prototype of what he hopes to be a string of franchises, according to manager Greg Poe.
In a phone conversation, Poe told me, "Mario was out front (at Mario's). Joe was behind everything. He was the quiet one with the ideas." Poe also told me they prepare all their food on the premises.
Wrought-iron chairs surround tables covered with fruit-patterned tablecloths. Packages, cans and jars of Italian foodstuffs line shelves and counters. Behind the counter, a picture of Sophia Loren with a basket of produce hangs alluringly, as any of her pictures do. A sound system plays Italian pop music and popular music by Italian-American Sinatra, Dino, etc. It's a quaint, cozy atmosphere, although I'd characterize the atmosphere more "deli" than "café."
A deli case displays a selection of prepared salads: artichoke, antipasto, cucumber and the like. A soft-drink machine stands ready for customers to fill their own Styrofoam cups. It's self-service though they serve dine-in dishes on real dinnerware. The menu also suggests deli rather than café. Besides the grinder — renamed and trademarked “Grindini” — Jovito's has pasta, pizza, calzones, paninis, bruschetta, salads, vegetable Pastina Soup and three appetizers. Something called "Italian 7 Layer Dip with chips ($4.99) made me curious but I had other priorities.
My wife Emily and I tried the soup ($1.99 small, $3.95 large) and a tossed green salad ($1.50 small, $3 large) Similar to minestrone with little BBs of pasta and a generous amount of vegetables, the soup had a satisfying mix of spiciness and soothing broth. The salad combined iceberg and romaine lettuce along tomatoes, carrots and a tangy house Italian dressing.
During the conversation with Jeff, I asked what was good. He said, "I always get the same thing, the meatball grinder Grindini. For a the uninitiated, a Grindini is a single-serving loaf of Italian bread, hollowed out and stuffed with mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce and a choice of meatballs, Italian sausage, pepperoni or just cheese.
Before I tried the Grindini, I'd had the meatballs in a Calzone ($5.95). I found the meatballs firm and well seasoned. The huge pizza dough turnover was stuffed with cheese and tomato sauce along with the meatballs. Later when I sampled the Grindini ($5.95), I tried the Italian sausage. Ample sausage filled the bread while the molten cheese and tangy tomato sauce added additional flavor and texture.
A comparison is unavoidable, considering Scaglia created the grinder in both restaurants. Well, Jovito's compares favorably to Mario’s. If I stood equidistant from both places, I'd have to flip a coin to decide.
Other items Emily and I tried on our visits didn't excite us as much as the Grindini. Of the pastas, we tried Lasagna ($7 with tomato sauce, $7.50 with meat sauce) and a side order of cheese ravioli ($3.75). They serve generous portions at Jovito's. The lasagna arrived at the table in a bowl suitable for a family. Although thick with meat, the sauce on one visit didn't have much character; the barest hint of seasoning made the lasagna ordinary at best. It improved considerably the next time although Emily still only described it as "ok".
Size handicaps the paninis ($5.95), the press-grilled sandwich. The plate-filling foccacia round dwarfs what would be ample filling in a smaller sandwich. I liked the combination of grilled chicken breast, artichokes, tomatoes, mozzarella and sauce in the North End but got tired of it less than halfway through, taking home the leftovers.
For dessert, Joe's sister, Mary Hart, provides Tiramisu ($3.95), Cannoli ($2.95) and Italian cookies ($.50 each). I especially enjoyed the Cannoli with its chunky ricotta cheese mildly sweetened and studded with chocolate chips in a shell fresh enough that it didn't crumble with each bite.
As I said, it's self-service. Emily and I had our orders taken and served correctly and efficiently. Poe told me a good portion of their business comes from carryout and catering. He also said folks from the neighborhood run into each there and stay awhile, chatting over sodas and coffee.
Scaglia's team may have the right idea for a string of franchises. It's an attractive, comfortable place with generous portions of inexpensive food. But for my money, they should promote Grindini stands. I'd be interested but probably end up eating my profit.
Despite his indifference to restaurants, my friend Jeff knows what he's talking about as far as Jovito's goes. "I always get the same thing, the meatball grinder."
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