Ten years ago, Joe Edwardsen was a pizza pioneer, introducing diners to square pies at his appropriately named Joe Squared restaurant in Station North. After a decade, the old place was collapsing, spurring a move in December to a shinier, spiffier corner building down the street.
Today, his menu still includes the deliciously charred, coal-fired, geometric pizzas that have attracted the attention of "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" and Food Network Magazine. He opened a second Joe Squared at Power Plant Live in 2013.
His repertoire has expanded over the years and features almost two-dozen creamy risottos, ciabatta sandwiches, salads and options for vegetarians and vegans. The affable restaurateur is working on a new menu item, too — cold roasted vegetable bowls starring the likes of green beans, broccoli and asparagus.
"I make them at home," Edwardsen said. "There's not enough roughage on the menu."
The freshly designed space still features the same gold and terracotta color scheme, local art for sale and music but is modernized for the next 10 years. The square footage isn't much different, but it's more usable, Edwardsen said.
The new dining room is bright and cheery with big windows overlooking North and Maryland avenues. The servers in red plaid shirts are still as friendly. And the menu is as great as ever.
To kick off our meal, we shared possibly the best wings we've ever had. These 10 sauce-naked drumettes and wingettes were listed as "dry with Old Bay" but tasted moist and juicy with a wonderful sprinkling of Baltimore's favorite spice blend. The wings come in traditional Buffalo sauce and eight other clever combos as well.
We like Joe Squared's version of Maryland crab soup, which was redolent with shreds of succulent crab, crisp tender vegetables and a zing of spice.
Potato skins always make us think of the fern bars' fare of the 1980s when President Reagan ruled and "Cheers" entranced us with Sam, Diane and the gang. Thank you, Joe Edwardsen, for memorializing this appetizer.
These half spuds cradled soft potato, bacon and cheddar with the requisite dish of sour cream and chives on the side. Other toppings include spinach and ricotta, and roasted mushroom and caramelized onion.
Our barbecue chicken pizza lived up to expectations. We ordered a 10-inch square, which serves one to two. (There are also 12-inch, 14-inch and 16-inch sizes.) Upon the crisp shell lay chopped-up barbecue chicken thighs, roasted garlic cream, fresh spinach leaves, thick slices of avocado and a solid coating of mozzarella and cheddar cheeses.
But this is only one of the many pizza choices at Joe Squared. There are dozens of options to top the sourdough crust baked in a 900-degree, anthracite-burning oven. Other signature pizzas include one with bacon and clams and another with our beloved crab.
I've always been enthralled with Joe's flag pizza, a tri-colored tribute to Italy's insignia with sections of red sauce, mozzarella, provolone, Romano, Parmigiano and Asiago; garlic sauce with mozzarella, cheddar and ricotta; and pesto sauce with fresh mozzarella.
You can also build your own, picking a sauce, cheeses, meats and vegetables, fruits and herbs.
The mushroom cheese ciabatta sandwich was another plateful of deliciousness on thick bread with plentiful roasted mushrooms, caramelized onion, roasted red pepper strips, cheddar, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Even the 4-inch-by-4-inch, "small" portion was generous. (There's also a 4-inch-by-7-inch monster.) It came with a mixed greens salad, bobbing with cherry tomatoes and tossed with a mild-mannered honey mustard dressing.
If you've ever made risotto at home, you know how labor intensive it is. To find a restaurant that can handle the task is a wonder. Joe Squared's version uses carnaroli rice slow cooked in stock and cream, or coconut milk for vegans. Our avocado risotto was a delight with bits of the buttery fruit mingled with pine nuts, corn kernels and Brie.
Baked desserts are made in house and include carrot cake and a gluten-free chocolate cake. We had our eye on the lemon cheesecake, a creamy wedge with a citrusy glow. A mixed berry puree, gilding the top, added a yin-yang tartness to the fluffy cake.
Joe Squared also features three flavors of Baltimore's Taharka Brothers' ice cream: bourbon vanilla, chocolate and salty caramel. We're always happy to find this frozen treat on a menu. Besides making terrific ice cream, the social enterprise contributes to the community by mentoring young adults.