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Papa Joe's exterior
Located in the Valley on Akron Peninsula Road, Papa Joe's has been a tradition for years.
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Papa Joes wine
One of the most extensive wine selections.
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Papa Joes fried ravioli
Fried ravioli appetizer.
Fine dining is supposed to be at least one step above the ordinary. While I don’t subscribe to the theory that it requires a special occasion to merit multiple courses and more than one wine, such a meal can, and should, elevate eating out to a higher level. If that is so, then the grand experience of fine dining is almost certainly the tasting dinner.
Tasting dinners come in at least two forms. At many restaurants with celebrity chefs (or would-be celebrity chefs), the tasting dinner (degustation menu) is usually built around preparations of which the kitchen is particularly proud. If the restaurant is wine savvy, you can usually count on the staff to match appropriate wines to the dishes. The exact opposite, of course, is the wine tasting dinner. Here a group of wines is selected and the menu is planned to compliment the vino.
Here in the Northeast Ohio area, we are blessed with an abundance of fine food and fine wine. We may not be thought of as a culinary capital, but take it from me (and I’ve been around), we are competitive. In Akron, one of the consistently fine examples of the fine dining “Grand Experience” is provided at least monthly by Papa Joe’s, at the foot of Portage Trail in “the valley”. The review covers the first to two such experiences, and Friday, I'll report on a second.
Papa Joe’s, still run by members of the Iacomini family, takes its food and wine seriously. How seriously? Well, in addition to a relatively value based wine list, there is a retail wine shop where you can browse examples and vintages of some of the finest wines ever made…and yes, you can buy a bottle to take home or to carry into the restaurant for service with your meal. On a nightly basis, the kitchen shines brightly with what I would describe as traditional Italian-American cuisine: steaks, chops, racks, pastas, seafood, salads, anti-pasta. I would call it the expected, but it is extremely well done and I have never been disappointed.
However, this is a kitchen than can go way beyond the expected when called on to do so, and when Papa Joe’s holds a tasting dinner, it always is a grand experience. Wine tasting dinners are almost always built around a theme. I have been to at least a half dozen at Papa Joe’s and maybe a dozen more at other northeast Ohio restaurants. The possible themes include various wines from a single winery, vertical tastings of a single label (say, for example, six years of vintage cabernet from a well-known vintner), wines from a particular region, comparative tasting of a single variety (for instance, five or six different Chardonnay’s from the same year but different makers), and so on.
Most of the time, an importer or distributor that does business with the restaurant sponsors wine tasting dinners. This is a tremendous side benefit. It means that a knowledgeable wine expert, often even the wine maker or owner from a noted winery, will be on hand to offer tasting notes and background information on the wines. The one we are attending tonight is a prime example of that. On the other hand, the one here was distributor driven, and featured Italian wines paired with some of the restaurant's more traditional menu items.
If you are looking to maximize the Papa Joe’s tasting dinner experience (or a similar experience at any restaurant), I would offer the following tips. First, get on the mailing list so you are kept up to date on scheduled events. You don’t often find these dinners advertised in the media, so if you are interested, it’s up to you to find them. Next, you might want to be selective. Not everyone likes foie gras! Some people will not eat veal on principle. Some wineries might be more attractive to a knowledgeable vinophile than others. If possible, get a copy of the menu and wine offerings in advance and try to pick events where you know you will enjoy the offerings. Whether it is a chef’s menu or a wine tasting meal, there probably won’t be much ability within the planned menu for customization of you meal.
Also, keep in mind this will be a multi-course dinner. You will probably be served between five and seven dishes with a different wine selected to complement each recipe. Papa Joe’s is particularly generous with their portions (but at some places, the food offerings tend more towards bite sized!). I have never left one of these events hungry, but I have left them stuffed, and once or twice with less than a clear head. However you prepare for these eventualities is up to you.
Do your homework, make your reservations, dress up a little, and enjoy your grand event. Papa Joe's is located at 1561 Akron-Penninsula Road, on the corner with Portage Trail. The phone number is 330-923-7999. The menu for the dinner being held tonight is posted on their web site: http://www.papajoes.com/special.html