It's been almost 30 years since Papa Joe's opened its doors near Boise State University.
Since then, this Italian-American eatery has fed countless college students and university faculty members who cross Capitol Boulevard every day in search of saucy lasagna and thick-rimmed pizzas.
I once had a professor (when I was an undergraduate at BSU) who liked to hold one of his upper-division journalism classes at Papa Joe's once in awhile. I remember lingering long after class had ended, munching on meatball sandwiches and drinking Chianti with my classmates, while discussing the merits of gonzo journalism.
Many people around here have similar stories to tell about Joe's. It's an institution in its own right - one that serves comfort food like you might find at an Italian grandmother's house on a Sunday night.
The restaurant is a funky hodgepodge of renovation additions from various times in the building's history, dating back to when it was a Northwest seafood house called Dixon's (thus the Salish-influenced totem pole out front) and beyond.
Owners Mike and Rae Grant (Mike worked at Joe's while he was in college at BSU) have made many upgrades to the building since they purchased the business in 2005. Most notably, they added a bar/coffee shop and a fabric-covered patio area, both of which have become popular spots to hang out.
The menu has been retooled and expanded in recent years as well. Besides the Sicilian-style pizzas, hot sandwiches and hearty pasta dishes of yesteryear, diners can also score more appetizers, entrees and desserts than ever before - all made from scratch.
On a recent dinner visit, Joe's was bursting at the seams, yet service remained friendly and relatively efficient, considering our waiter had a packed section and then some.
We got things rolling with a grilled zucchini appetizer ($4.50) and an order of garlic cheese bread ($4.25), a plate of toasted Italian bread (smothered with garlic butter and gooey mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses) that came with oregano-perfumed marinara sauce. (All the bread the restaurant uses comes from Alpicella Bakery in Boise.)
While the long-cut zucchini boasted defined grill marks and a proper smoky flavor, it was drenched in too much olive oil, making the squash limp and greasy.
We were much happier with the clam chowder ($5.50), a bowl of tasty Boston-style chowder -pocked with tender clams, skin-on spuds, carrots and dill - fortified with clam broth and heavy cream.
I ordered a glass of Chianti ($6/Casa Vinicola Zonin) in anticipation of the plate of lasagna ($9.50) that was soon headed my way. The bold red wine paired well with this stratum of al dente pasta sheets layered with Italian sausage, Bolognese-like meat sauce, Parmesan, mozzarella and creamy ricotta - served with sliced French bread for soaking up the extra red sauce that pooled around the blistered lasagna.
My dining partner went for the chicken Marsala ($12.50), a tangle of spinach and regular fettuccine, sauteed mushrooms, garlic, tender pieces of grilled chicken breast and basil chiffonade in a fragrant wine sauce that unfortunately was slightly greasy.
Joe's probably makes the best panna cotta ($7.25) in town. We couldn't get enough of this milky white, eggless custard - delightfully rich and silky - adorned with jammy raspberry sauce, candied walnuts and chopped mint. This spot-on dessert alone is worth a trip to Joe's.
A few days later, I came back for lunch with a colleague of mine. After perusing the large menu, we settled on some sandwiches.
The eggplant Parmesan sandwich ($8.99) came just the way I like it: crispy, breaded slices of eggplant with moderate amounts of red sauce and melty cheese, tucked into a crusty roll next to a small Caesar salad. But I didn't find any sauteed mushrooms on the sandwich, as the menu promised.
My dining partner settled on the Don ($9.50), a cheesesteaklike hot sandwich (on a toasted hoagie roll) packed with aromatic pastrami, sauteed green bell pepper and mushrooms and gooey mozzarella, served with au jus and mixed greens with a side of chunky blue cheese dressing.
We also tagged on a creamy chicken Alfredo pizza ($17.95/12-incher) for good measure. This Sicilian-style pie (meaning the doughy crust is somewhere between Chicago deep dish and New York-style pizza in terms of thickness) came topped with a housemade white sauce - with hints of nutmeg and garlic - tender chicken, chopped scallion and thinly sliced tomato. It's one of the better white pizzas I've tried around town.
Joe's food might not knock your socks off (except for the panna cotta), but it's good, honest food that's affordable and mostly made from scratch. What more can you ask for in this age of overpriced, processed food?
Email James Patrick Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org