If you have to book a big table for a family reunion, Café Barbosso is the place for you.
The noise you make catching up on each other’s lives won’t make a dent in the boisterous din already going on. There’s the TV at the bar, clumps of people ordering pizza having a rousing time, folks getting up to check out the art for sale on the walls, or chatting with an artist at the easel who’s painting in a corner. It’s like a bazaar in this place, with tables, booths, a long bar and a semi-open kitchen where the hustle and bustle looks like madness but is highly organized and overseen by chef Joe DiMaggio Jr. (Yes, he’s related to the baseball legend.) A big man, chef Joe loves to walk the room talking up the regulars and introducing himself to new people. The industrial space is wide and high, just right for the larger-than-life personality who runs it.
The restaurant’s name is DiMaggio’s shout-out to a colorful Little Italy character of his New York City youth, one Frankie “Bumps” BarBosso, who’s been serving time since 1988. His story is on the menu and makes colorful pulp-fiction reading. And it explains the date on the front of servers’ black T-shirts. On the back is printed, “Eat your pasta, pay your bill, mind your business.” There’s definitely attitude going on, but it’s more playful than smoldering wise-guy. Our young server, Matt, announced himself as “your humble servant” and could be in the running for best grandson of this or any other year.
The food at Cafe Barbosso has attitude, too. It’s authentic New York Italian-American. The menu is full of classic favorites, and almost every one of them is done exceptionally well. But there are some surprises, including a lamb pizza. If you like lamb, there’s every reason to order this thin-crust semolina crust drizzled with mint-infused oil, coconut curry, cardamom yogurt, fresh mozzarella and chunks of tender, mild lamb. What a dish at $15. It’s like nothing you’d expect in an Italian restaurant.
Other pizzas include grilled vegetables, smashed meatball, spinach and bacon, four-cheese with smoked ham, and lots more starting at $10, plus a make-your-own where the sky is the limit. All individual 12-inch pizzas are wood-oven baked; the large 18-inch ones are done in a brick oven.
Salads (the antipasto one with four meats is a winner at $14), sandwiches, a dozen pasta dishes and a half dozen full entrées are also available. One of the best is the Ultimate Eggplant, a 10-layer torte. Perfect thin slices of nearly seedless eggplant (chef uses a meat slicer) are layered with bechamel, cheese and marinara sauce. The stack doesn’t topple over when cut with a knife, and each bite is meltingly good, with the concentrated flavor of the eggplant coming through.
Cafe Barbosso is not a small-plate kind of experience. Excessive sharing is discouraged, with a $5 split charge on all entrées. And if you bring your own bottle of wine, expect a $10 corkage fee. You could, however, compose a meal of various appetizers from grilled octopus served with lemon potato wedges (excellent) to wild mushroom polenta, stuffed hot pepper or family-recipe meatballs. The batter-fried calamari, though, is bland and in immediate need of salt and of the two sauces that come with it, sundried tomato aioli or house-made marinara ($12).
Egg in purgatory has become a big hit at $18. Eggs are poached in marinara sauce and enhanced with fresh basil leaves, flat leaf parsley, Reggiano cheese and chili oil. The concoction is truly tasty.
The rigatoni Bolognese ($17) is a three-meat blend done with a splash of cognac and a touch of cream. It’s as rich as it sounds. Angel hair pasta goes gourmet when combined with chopped lobster, shrimp and spinach in a roasted garlic-chardonnay sauce. This one comes with white clam sauce. Fresh parsley and a shot of fresh clam juice give it extra flavor at $18. All pasta dishes can be served with gluten-free penne for a $3 upcharge.
If there’s a spot on your palate left for dessert, go for the cannoli. The cone is super-crisp and fresh and the creamy ricotta filling is studded with chocolate bits. I wouldn’t mind if there were some pistachio nuts poking out of the filling, not that I’m complaining. I ate my dinner, enjoyed the human comedy all around me and paid my bill. That’s enough to be welcomed back anytime by chef Joe and his salty-tongued crew. And I do plan to go back.
5501 Palmer Crossing Circle, Sarasota