Killer asparagus and bud-provoking pasta at Josephine
At the bottom of the semi-new Cambria Hotel (should it not be Sombria?) is the newly opened Josephine, an Italian eatery from the folks that run The Longfellow Bar (with its great twice-smoked chicken wings), Alden & Harlow and Waypoint (seafood pizza and succulent smoked and salted peel-and eat-shrimp). The place has the upscale essence of chef-owner Michael Scelfo’s other spots but because of the vast light infusion from large, luminous windows, notches higher on the elegance scale. Most impressively, you don’t feel like you’re sitting on dust-blown Somerville Avenue, which is going through a battery of construction and road reconstruction projects.
The menu’s fairly focused: pasta, suppli, apps and sides, and pizza. If you don’t know what suppli is, just say arancini – a fried Italian rice ball that’s more ovular in shape. They’re quite good, crisp and moist, but my palate dreamed of a side of marinara to add some tang and zest.
The pizzas come in deep dish and wood-fired thins. The former takes a minimum of 25 minutes to come out after order and, as you can guess, is a gooey, heavy, cheesy pie that a friend of mine described as a “Thanksgiving day event” – if you Google the caloric load of a deep dish vs. a regular pie, you’ll see why. I’ve yet to try one, but it’s on my radar; there are not a lot of places to get Chicago-style in Boston now that Uno’s feels largely gone (though curiously, still has its headquarters here), and Josephine offers such whimsically labeled pies as – heaven help us – the Rosemary’s Baby (chicken, potato and sautéed onions), Go Ask Alice (mushrooms, peppers and onions) as well as sausage with pork (oink, oink) and pepperoni offerings.
Those thins come out as puffy pillows of dough that I would describe as Neapolitan in style. On my last visit I had the Tito’s Favorito, with vodka sauce (booze-spiked, creamy red), sausage and reggiano cheese. Our super friendly bartender was named Tito, though I’m not sure if the ’za was named in his honor. The Tito’s was quite good, basic, simple and satisfying, and in conversation with Si Cara and Stoked as far as Neapolitan pies go, though Stoked does the best job of really loading the pie with fillings and sauce from the center to the crust. Other thins include pepperoni with basil and hot honey, zucchini blossoms and a white clam.
One thing I sampled that really blew my mind was wood-grilled asparagus – sounds simple, and it was, but also it wasn’t. The ample serving of stalks weren’t mushy or sinewy, but at just the right in-between texture. Atop was pickled ramps and a white bean vinaigrette with a citrus aioli on the side to dip into. (A smart move. If the dish also came dressed, it could have been too much; best to let the diner decide.) In that vinaigrette were chilled whole white beans that played against the temperatures of the ramps and grilled stalks, poetically evoking summertime grill-and-chill combos.
Onto the spaghetti: There’s diced clam and cauliflower among mostly meatless offerings that come out in fun tumbles on a flat plate (rather than the more traditional shallow bowl). On my last trip, Josephine had a bucatini special that really impressed and took on different qualities as you dug further in. Again, it was simple whole ingredients of housemade pasta, sautéed ramps and a light, creamy cheese sauce with a fluffy crown of grated cheese. It reminded me some of the quick noodles and cheese sauce dish my mom used to make, pure comfort with no heaviness and shaved, sautéed ramps to add a buttery, spinachlike accent. Next up, a few laps around Fresh Pond and that sausage-and pork-deep dish.
Josephine (515 Somerville Ave., Somerville)
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.