A Night Out at Papa Joe?s Pizza

Category:  Food & Drink
Thursday, September 8th, 2011 at 8:00 AM
A Night Out at Papa Joe?s Pizza by Ben Speggen
Papa Joe's

Tucked away off the downtown beaten path and the onslaught of restaurant after restaurant on Upper Peach Street sits something different on West Ridge Road. At first, the name might confuse you?is it Papa John?s or Papa Joe?s?especially since we?re talking pizza.

Take note: we?re talking Papa Joe?s here.

But Papa Joe?s does more than the standard classic pepperoni and cheese, which sets their menu apart from the rest. And any respectful review of Papa Joe?s has to start with some examples of the standouts on the menu?the Ranchero Diablos, the Vegan Demises, the Schwegmen?s Mostly Meat Pizza when you?re talking pies. But why stop there? Look to your right and see a list of sandwiches with equally alluring names?the Finger or Winger for meat-lovers, the Enchanted Eggplant and Veggie Bomber for vegetarians. And then, the Chuck Norris?a sandwich in a category all its own.

From the vegetarian friendly to the meatarian champions, it?s difficult to get the span of owners Ken and Jan Gervasi?s menu. But four of us sat down recently in the dinning room, which fits about 70 or so people comfortably, in order to get a better understanding of this restaurant that dishes out pizzas, subs, salads, and more that got its start as a coffee shop downtown (they still serve breakfast featuring coffee brewed from beans roasted in Erie and bagels from a shop based out of Meadville).

To get our dinner experience underway while we waited for our pies to cook, we decided to start with the Falafel Sampler Platter. While you can get a falafel sandwich, we ordered the sampler platter since it comes with yogurt, hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes, pineapple salsa, spicy tahini sauce, and flat bread on a bed of lettuce.

The fried balls were crunchy without being grease-soaked, and the simplicity of their taste was subtly brilliant?which worked nicely given the myriad combinations one can make from the platter. Some tomato, yogurt, and pineapple salsa elicits a sweetness backed with a hint of tart from the pineapple. Hummus, cucumbers, and tahini sauce draws out a spicier saltiness that compliments the sweet bite you just had and can?t forget. And the combinations are just beginning. If enjoyed with friends, the Falafel Sampler Platter won?t leave you too full to break into your pies, but it could also serve as a one-person meal. 

We also ordered a side of sweet potato fries with honey as a starter. After enjoying the freshness of the falafels, the sweet crispiness of the fries came as a welcomed change of pace. The fries weren?t overly greasy, which allowed for the soft texture and taste of sweet potato to capture our attention. Dipped in honey, these sweet treats disappeared from the table faster than anything else.

But perhaps the best starter was the Jandarin Salad, which features Mandarin oranges, peanuts, black olives, onions, Romano cheese, and its signature Italiorange dressing. While the dressing?certainly unique to this salad experience?served as the high point of the salad, the interesting pairing of the saltiness of the peanuts and black olives complimented the tangy sweetness of the oranges, making for a light and fresh experience that alternated well against the fried sugary goodness of the sweet potato fries.

And then, just as the last bite of lettuce made its way onto a fork, the pies came out. To get the fullest Papa Joe?s experience possible without stretching our belts too much, we decided to try three pies?Mike?s Super Pink Cheese, the Ranchero Diablo, and the Barbecued Chicken Pizza?in order to get a diverse experience of what Papa Joe?s has to offer.

Mike?s Super Pink Cheese, which came at Ken?s recommendation, was simple yet intriguing. The garlic pink sauce caught our attention without overpowering the nice marriage between the soft mozzarella and sharp cheddar cheeses. While one of the more basic pies on the menu, Mike?s Super provides a nice alternative to the standard cheese pizza.

The next pizza comes with a warning printed on the menu: for heat lovers. And as the menu description of the Ranchero Diablo reads, it comes with a ?heavy hand of jalapenos.? These chefs might be cooking this one with iron gloves because the heat takes center stage and steals the spotlight in this production as it?s hard to notice anything but the spicy greens staring you down, challenging you to take that first bite. But as we learned, it?s the good kind of heat?if heat?s your thing?the kind of heat that doesn?t destroy you like some spicier foods can do. Instead, it flirts with you, stinging you here, pinching you there, never defeating you but always tempting you back for another bite because of all the other elements at play in the pie.

You can elect to top the pie with chicken or black beans, and since we had two vegetarians at the table, we went with black beans. The softness of the starchy beans balanced the jalapenos and stole back some of the heat, tempering the blast of peppers, making it easy to toss back multiple slices. And with cheddar and feta cheese melted together, this pie runs the flavor gamut all in one bit. A bit of fire? Yes, the red sauce with chipotle peppers ignites the jalapenos. Something tangy? Absolutely that combination of cheese shifts the gears. Something holding it subtly all together? The beans keep it all in perspective. This pie was my personal favorite.

So after we wiped the sweat from our brows, we dug into the last pizza. While you might be likely to find barbecued chicken pizzas elsewhere, Papa Joe?s chicken pie stands out with the spicy sauce that both packs a zing and sings sweet notes. The cooked onions draw out the plump chicken breast while the softness of the classic mozzarella allows the toppings to capture the most notes. But the last ingredient takes experience to another level: bacon. The crispy texture accents the juiciness of the chicken and manages to draw out even more sweet notes of the sauce, leaving you thankful that barbecue isn?t the only b-word in this mix.

With absolutely no room left for dessert, we pushed on anyway. And with good reason: Jan?s Famous Peanut Butter Pie. The pie, the culmination of all things sweet, decadent, and dangerously sugary is beyond words and absolutely worth what can only be a calorie count beyond a point of concern. Plus the sticky sweetness seemed to proverbial icing on the cake of bold flavors already dancing in our bellies.

So with falafels, sweet potato fries, jalapenos, bacon, and peanut butter?among other delicious things?all mixing together, we left full and happy. Sometimes trying to do too much can be the death of a restaurant. But the ability to deliver a menu with all of these flavors working creatively side-by-side sets Papa Joe?s apart from your standard pizza joint and makes it worth the trip out West Ridge Road.


Papa Joe?s is located at 3826 West Ridge Road. They?re open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; and 3 to 9 p.m. Saturday for dine-in, take-out, and delivery, and are now serving beer and wine and have six- and twelve-packs available for carry out.

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