There’s more than killer pizza to recommend this North Avenue institution
Published: April 20, 2011
Does the entire city of Baltimore patronize Joe Squared? On a deliciously warm Monday night, the answer feels like “yes.” Outside, the group of pretty, young hipsters slouching in chairs and lifting pints suggests that MICA has relocated seminars to the sidewalk tables at 133 W. North Ave. Inside, Vietnam vets share stories at the bar with Hopkins employees; a man in the dining room outs his fellow diner as the artist behind the Baltimore scenes that line the room’s deep red walls. A WYPR-FM producer, head to toe in black and waiting for a table, nearly gets mistaken for waitstaff. There are families and couples, black folks and white, gay and straight. Across the room, a local small-business owner munching pizza speaks for many patrons when he enthuses, “We come here all the time.”
And why not? The reasons to visit Joe Squared are straightforward and obvious. The drinks menu rocks, with an eclectic selection of beer and wine and enough cocktails to knock you off your skinny-jeaned butt; the service couldn’t be friendlier, even when the restaurant is understaffed and teeming with customers; and there’s that little matter of the coal-fired pizza. Crispy, square, and singed around the edges, it simply has no equal in town.
The pizza (available in 10-, 12-, 14-, and 16-inch sizes) is such a no-brainer, (bacon and clam [$17/$19/$22/$25] for me, please) that it’s hard to break habit and order anything else. “I’ve worked here two and a half years,” one server remarked, “and I still haven’t gotten tired of the pizza.” Me neither.
But to overlook the rest of Joe Squared’s ever-growing menu is to miss out on some hidden gems, such as a creamy bowl of risotto studded with asparagus and laced with cheese ($8 small, $14 large), one of the more traditional iterations of over a dozen variations of the dish, including arugula and venison; carrot, curry, feta, and fennel; and a Moroccan-spiced bacon-and-apple combo. Traditional doesn’t equal boring, though, and the asparagus risotto is well made and garnished with small chunks of fresh oranges that make the dish seem even more akin than usual to a savory rice pudding. The fruit gives the perfect flash of fresh sweetness to the salty cheese and briny asparagus. It’s clearly a keeper.
So, too, is the mushroom salad ($5.50 small, $9 large), the antithesis to that nice plate of lettuce we order to make us feel more virtuous while we down carbs. Woodsy, soft, and intense, rather than crispy and light, the salad brings together earthy elements—wilted spinach, thyme, roasted garlic vinaigrette, mushrooms—with the brightness of red onion and red pepper and a wedge of creamy hardboiled egg. The small is large enough to share—but only with someone who doesn’t really like mushrooms.
If your Joe Squared experience has been limited to takeout pizza, be reminded that the restaurant also serves up a mess of subs and sandwiches, most of them “cheese steaks” made with anything from, well, steak to more unusual options such as fish ($8 small, $10 large) or lamb ($9 small, $11 large). While I love the idea of roasted lamb smothered in fried onions and cheese, sprinkled with fresh mint and tucked into a bun, the result is less distinctive than expected, and any subtlety gets lost in the cheese and mayonnaise—though perhaps subtlety is too much to ask of anything called a cheese steak.
Pasta with marinara ($10), one of a handful of pasta dishes, including Bolognese and Parmigiano, on the menu, also needs a little boost, whether from salt or spice or a combination of the two. The marinara works better as a dipping sauce for the addictive hunks of garlic bread that come with the spaghetti, or with fried cheese ravioli ($7), a guilty pleasure purloined from St. Louis, where it’s enshrined on menus as a local appetizer.
A word about service. On the night of our visit, the restaurant was packed with customers and short on servers. Understandably, service was slow and stretched thin, but the two men who carried the restaurant that night never, ever passed any of their frustrations on to customers. They were cheerful, patient, and good-humored, even though they appeared not to have a moment to breathe. This, too, is what keeps patrons returning.
Five years ago, it was hard to imagine the draw of a gourmet pizza joint on North Avenue. Now it’s hard to remember the Baltimore pizza scene without Joe Squared. May we, like that server, never get tired of the pizza.
Joe Squared is open 7 days a week.
> Email Mary K. Zajac