When the first JoJo’s restaurant appeared on the Atlantic City boardwalk back in 1969, it was strictly pizza, but was a harbinger of the many family restaurants to follow. When a second and third and then more were created, they moved out into surrounding areas, with brothers and cousins all heavily involved.
JoJo’s Wood Fired Pizza & Grill in Ventnor is still owned and operated by Vincent Cannuscio, a son of one of the original owners, Joseph. Cannuscio has recently updated the concept by taking a step back to his youth — and sometimes change can be a very tasty thing.
The Italian-American menu that served JoJo’s well for so long is gone.
“The difference between before and now is, now it is a more authentic Italian eatery,” says Cannuscio, whose new menu is based on the food from his childhood — rustic dishes with Italian family recipes.
His menu no longer features the spaghetti and meatball, veal parmigiana or manicotti of menus past.
“When you have something, don’t break it,” says Cannuscio about his decision to switch from the recognizable Italian-American dishes to the food from his Mediterranean hometown of Palermo, Sicily. “I have the clientele that was looking to make the change. They are not afraid to eat and try.”
Some things, however, are untouchable.
“The ‘traditional pie’ has been around for 42 years,” says Cannuscio. “We will never change that.”
Antipasti and insalate refers to appetizers and salads, and offers wide selection to choose from. Melanzana a la Siciliana ($8) is an eggplant parmigiana, pan-fried instead of breaded and deep fried with pomodoro basil sauce and parmigiano-reggiano cheese and is still one of the most popular dishes.
Grilled octopus ($9) is tender and served over sauteed radicchio with a reduced balsamic vinaigrette, the bitter lettuce offset by the natural sweetness of the aged vinegar all with a green herb sauce. Another item not usually found on local menus is seasonal grilled sardines ($8.50) that are char-grilled and served over the salsa verde.
“When I get them fresh, I advertise it,” says Cannuscio.
For those who expect to see squid on every Italian menu, Cannuscio’s version is grilled calamari salad ($8.50) tossed with celery, carrots, olives, capers, and red onion with extra virgin olive oil and lemon.
Primi are the courses that features pasta or risotto. At JoJo’s that means fresh-made pasta shaped accordingly. Bucatini a la Matraciana ($12) uses guanciale — the cheek from the pig — instead of pancetta — the unsmoked Italian bacon — making the dish the way it is made authentically in Rome. San Marzano plum tomatoes are used in the sauce.
Spaghetti a la Pic-Pac ($10) means a basil, plum tomato sauce with light garlic is quickly made, rather than long-cooked, to maintain that fresh tomato quality.
“We make all our sauce from fresh plum tomatoes, we don’t use canned tomatoes,” says Cannuscio.
Sicilian menus are famous for their seafood offerings and so is JoJo’s.
Much of the seafood is flown in from the Mediterranean, supplemented by a few local items such as the fresh cod that Cannuscio uses in place of the salted cod called baccala. His baccala Messinese ($17) is a Sicilian-style fish stew with potatoes, garlic and onion in a light red sauce.
“Olives and capers make it so Mediterranean,” says Cannuscio.
Calamari farciti alla Siciliana ($14) is not the typical stuffed calamari. Instead it features ingredients such as crab meat, raisins, pine nuts and seasoned bread crumbs served over risotto.
Meat is also represented on the menu and the grigliata di carne ($25) features a grilled meat sampler that has a grilled petite filet mignon, sweet fennel sausage, ribeye involtini and a lamb chop drizzled with aioli. It is certainly not a carnivore’s dilemma.
JoJo’s offers both brick oven and wood-fired pizza to its customers. All wood-fired pizzas feature fior di latte, the soft and wet version of mozzarella cheese.
Wood-fired pizza choices include the ever-popular margherita ($10) with fior di latte; the Grecian ($11) made with mozzarella and feta cheese; fire-roasted veggies ($11) with eggplant, zucchini, roasted peppers and tomatoes; and the quattro formaggi ($12), a four-cheese pizza with fior di latte, ricotta, gorgonzola dolce and asiago.
Authentic Italian-style panini are grilled sandwiches on ciabatta bread that are also a staple of the menu.
“In Italy, it is very common to get a thin piece of steak inside a piece of bread, a home version of a cheesesteak,” says Cannuscio.