Contrary to what many people might think, I abhor sending food back to the kitchen. It isn't that I feel that as a customer, I should get what I ordered. It isn't that I'm afraid that the kitchen staff is going to do some unspeakable horror to my food. Having worked on the line in high school, I know that having to re-fire an order can throw your rhythm off. Suddenly the other six orders you had cooking that were running smoothly now get botched because you have to add in that extra order and that delicate house of cards called pacing can come tumbling down. That's why I am willing to live with a burger ordered medium that comes out somewhere between medium well to well but still juicy. That's why I am willing to eat food that isn't seasoned properly when it comes out of the kitchen. Of course, there are always hard and fast rules, especially when it comes to food safety. So if I ever send a dish back to the kitchen, you can be sure that something really is fundamentally wrong with the dish.
Tonight, for dinner, I decided to check out an old stomping ground that used to be a favorite of my grandfather and mine, Papa Joe's / Iacomini's. Truth be told, my grandfather's true favorite was actually Little Joe's in Bath, Ohio (where Ken Stewart's Lodge currently resides), but we ate many meals at Papa Joe's, too. Located at 1561 Akron-Peninsula Road, Akron, Ohio 44313, they can be reached at 330-923-7999. A word of warning on the website, the ever-present Flash introduction has sound, so adjust your volume accordingly.
I pulled into the restaurant at 7 PM on a Saturday night to a quite full parking lot. I knew that not having a reservation might present a problem, but I was willing to wait as I really had nothing else planned for the evening. The restaurant was definitely full and when I told the host that I didn't have a reservation, he initially seemed a little flustered. He initially told me it would take about fifteen minutes to find a table, but miraculously he seemed to scrounge one up in a matter of minutes. Granted, it wasn't an optimal table for taking pictures (as you'll see in just a bit), but at least my wait was short and sweet.
Just so you, gentle reader, are aware, all of the photos have been "fixed" by the processing software I use (a combination of the GIMP and Picasa) for legibility. The original photos would've been completely unusable without some serious contrast boosting and lightening of each one.
Once I was seated, my server dropped off a menu. Here was a shot of the front of the menu:
Fortunately, the rest of the menu is available on their website, so please feel free to check it out. The only other photo of the menu I took was of the nightly January 2010 dinner special that seemed to call out to me, the pork ragu:
Besides the pork ragu, I noticed on the specials board when I first walked in that one of the soups du jour was a sweet potato bisque. Intrigued, I asked my server about it and she described it to me and indicated that it was available in both a cup or a bowl. My dinner choices now clearly in focus, I ordered a cup of the bisque to start and the pork ragu over pappardelle for my entree. Shortly after placing my order, a basket of warmed dinner rolls and butter appeared on my table:
I never managed to find out if they bake these rolls on the premises, but I can tell you that they were warm and delicious. The butter pats were also nicely softened and spread easily onto the steaming interior of the rolls. The flavor of the rolls, while nothing extraordinary, was still very good and made for an excellent starter to the meal.
Shortly after my dinner rolls arrived, my server brought the cup of sweet potato bisque to my table:
The bisque had been topped with a dollop of sour cream that had been sweetened with a bit of maple syrup and a grinding of fresh cinnamon. I decided to smell and taste a bit of the bisque by itself, sans sour cream. It had a very vegetal smell to it, almost like vegetable soup or V8 juice, and had no hint of any kind of spice to it. The flavor, however, had just a hint of sweetness to it. I realized that after tasting it, the vegetal smell was probably due to the presence of carrots and onions in addition to the sweet potato. The seasoning was quite nice. For my second spoonful, I added just a bit of the sour cream mixture on top and the combination of the sweet, the spice, and the soup made for a very pleasant mouthful. The only real nitpick for me was that the bisque wasn't silky smooth. However, that didn't stop me from finishing the entire cup.
About halfway through my cup of soup, my served stopped by my table to drop off my salad:
While I was a bit annoyed that I suddenly felt like I was being rushed, I figured that at least I didn't have to worry about the salad getting cold. I finished my soup and turned my attention to the salad. A mixture of various greens, spinach, frisee, and radicchio, the salad was finished off with several rings of red onion, shredded carrots and a couple slices of fresh cucumber. When I inquired if any of the salad dressings were homemade, my server had responded with, "White French." Since I had ordered the dressing on the side, I was able to try the dressing first, before adding it to the greens. My initial reaction? It was very tasty. It had a taste very similar to blue cheese dressing but without the pungency of the cheese. I enjoyed the dressing both on the salad greens and as a dip for my second dinner roll. And while there wasn't any kind of chemical alchemy going on like there was during my trip to Parasson's, the fresh dinner roll made a wonderful vehicle for getting the dressing to my mouth.
Having finished my soup and salad, I ended up waiting about ten minutes for my entree. Where I had previously thought that my serving rushing my meal in order to turn the table, turned out to be more about her just having bad timing with the soup and salad. When my entree arrived at the table, I was more than delighted to see that the description that I had read on the menu translated into a tasty looking plate of food. Here was a shot of the ragu over pappardelle:
I tasted the ragu first. It had a wonderful balance between sweet, salty, and acidic. I could taste each individual component of the sauce as well as the entirety of the ingredients put together. Comprised of tomatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, white wine, and incredibly tender pulled pork, this was a delight on my taste buds. While the menu hadn't said if the pappardelle was fresh pasta or not, it definitely looked like fresh pasta. My mouth now watering, I used my fork to roll up a bit of the pasta and the sauce and took a bite. From that very first bite of pasta, I knew something was off. Really off. The first thing I noticed was the texture. It had a very soft and gummy texture, sort of like uncooked dough. The next thing I noticed was the taste of raw flour, which even with the flavorful ragu combined in with the pasta, I could easily taste. My mind sort of raced at this point. I wanted to be sure that before I sent anything back to the kitchen that I was absolutely sure that the pasta wasn't cooked correctly.
My thought process went something along the lines of this: If the pasta was cooked from dried and undercooked, then it would still have a hard center. If the pasta was cooked from either dried or fresh and was overcooked, then it would be mushy, yes, but not gummy and would tear in a predictable manner when stretched between fork and knife. When I took a noodle and applied a little force to elongate the noodle, it didn't tear at all, but stretched, just like a raw bread dough. To be fair, I tried additional noodles from other parts of the bowl, thinking that I might have just gotten a small pocket of undercooked noodles. Unfortunately, the pasta was universally undercooked.
When my server stopped by to check on me, I asked her if the noodles were fresh and she almost emphatically insisted that they were cooked from dried pasta. I very delicately told her that I thought that the pasta was fresh and undercooked and showed her what happened when I stretched one of the noodles. She immediately realized that I wasn't just trying to make trouble and she took the entire bowl back to the kitchen. Not a minute later, she came back, apologized, and said that not only were the noodles fresh (which she hadn't realized), but the chef agreed that the pasta was woefully undercooked.
She immediately offered a replacement entree. Since I had already had a cup of soup, a salad, two dinner rolls, and about 1/4 of my previous entree, I asked her if I could simply get an order of the penne with meat sauce to go. I have to give her credit because once I identified the problem, she immediately worked to address and resolve the issue quickly and with as little annoyance to me as possible.
After only a few minutes, she returned to my table with my take-out container, apologized once more, and left the check. Here was a shot of my container of penne with meat sauce:
Choosing the penne with meat sauce was a no brainer for me. I've had it before and always loved it. In fact, that was what I had on my mind when I initially thought of returning to Papa Joe's. However, the pork ragu looked especially enticing on the menu tonight, so I decided to forgo one for the other. Who knew that I'd end up going home with an order of it? I did have some of the pasta later on that night for a snack and it was just as good as I remembered it.
Even with my fresh pasta snafu, I still highly recommend Papa Joe's. The flavors of all the dishes were quite good and the pork ragu by itself was outstanding. Once I identified a problem with my dish, my server worked quickly to remedy the situation to my satisfaction. While I wouldn't recommend just showing up at 7 PM on a busy Saturday night without a reservation like I did, they are often much less busy during lunchtime and offer a similar menu that is even more affordable. Would I order the pork ragu over fresh pappardelle again after tonight's experience? Absolutely. Had the pasta been executed perfectly, I think Papa Joe's would've pulled off a hat trick of flavors and textures tonight. I'm definitely willing to take that chance again.