After five years, Joe Squared matures nicely

Now that Joe Squared Pizza is 5 years old, many people know its story. They know that the pizza is square, is made from scratch with sourdough yeast and is cooked in a coal -burning oven. They know that the proprietor is Joe Edwardsen, who is as yeasty as his pizza. He took over the old Pump Room restaurant on West North Avenue, near Howard Street, moved upstairs, grew herbs on the roof and began serving up thin-crusted pizza and, later in the evening, live music to his customers, many of whom wandered over from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Recently I wandered into Joe's on a school night, and the joint was jumping. The pizza was outstanding, but it was facing competition from the risotto for best dish on the menu.

I was pleased to see you don't have to be young and cool to eat at Joe's. I spotted a sprinkling of other gray-hairs among the diners as I moved to a table. Yet the two young women who sat next to me were as avant-garde as the art on the walls. One woman had dyed her hair a shade of red that matched the paint on one wall. Between them, this twosome had three cell phones, which they constantly consulted during their meal. The waiters, dressed in black, scurried among the tables and at times were playing catch-up. The food was terrific.

The carrot risotto, one of a dozen types of risotto on the menu, was a knockout. Made with curry, feta, a touch of fennel and a helping of carrots, this dish was light, flavorful and surprising. My wife and I shared a small portion ($8) and wished we had ordered a large ($14).

I had enlisted some advice before tackling the menu's plethora of pizzas. One of our 20-something sons had already sampled many of these offerings, and he told me to order the spaghetti-and-meatball pizza and the Hawaiian, $15 each for the small. Good call.

The kitchen did not go overboard with either the spaghetti or the meatballs; they were there but were balanced with the roasted red peppers and an impressive array of cheeses, Parmesan, romano, asiago and mozzarella. The touch I liked was the topping of onion, adding just enough bite to the cheesy rectangle.

The Hawaiian pizza, however, was my favorite. Maybe it was the Canadian bacon, or the pineapple, or the cilantro, happily swimming with all those cheeses. Whatever the reason, it won my heart. The dough, which Edwardsen claims to make with sourdough starter smuggled in from Italy, was top-notch. The larger pizzas can stretch up to 16 inches and are served on elevated metal wire racks, called screens, to keep the pizza from getting soggy in the middle. The pizza here costs more than mass-produced pies, but its fresh ingredients and subtle flavors make it worth it.

The draft beers here were impressive. The Dale's Pale Ale from Colorado ($3.50 a pint) goes well with pizza. There are good Belgians as well and a crisp Czech lager. But I do think a restaurant like Joe's that promotes using local ingredients should have a Maryland-made beer on its list. I am sorry, but bottles of Natty Boh don't count. (Joe's has outstanding offerings of global rum, and when sampling rum, I abandon my belief in drinking only the locals.)

The only down note in our meal was dessert. The slices ($5 each) of almond and banana cakes, imported from a bakery, were good-looking but dry, and they lacked the interesting flavors that other dishes at Joe's deliver.

Joe now grows his herbs in a greenhouse in a building across North Avenue, he told me during a phone conversation. He no longer lives above the restaurant, having moved to an apartment a few blocks away. He calls himself a "pioneer of the North Avenue renaissance." I don't know about that, but his funky restaurant makes a great pizza and terrific risotto.

Joe Squared
Where: 113 W. North Ave., Baltimore
Call: 410 545-0444
Entrees: $8-$24 Credit Cards: Visa, Amex, MC

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