Restaurants in this area come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Italian restaurants dig deeper with nuanced regional cuisine to establish themselves from their competitors.
Then there’s Café BarBosso. “Eat, Laugh, Love or Else,” says the sign at the entry door. And then there’s this sign . . .
Everything about Café Barbosso has a larger-than-life quality about it. From Chef/Proprietor Joe DiMaggio Jr.’s ‘tude with his hands-on, assured personality, to the ginormous selection of paintings created on site by a roster of talented artists, Café Barbosso just feels different. What makes it truly special, at least to this SarasotaFoodie, is how Chef DiMaggio is able to create such amazing flavors with a minimalist approach of fresh ingredients. The man is an artist . . . in more ways than one!
Exhibit “A.” Our tasting began with Chef Joe’s Grandma’s Pizza. This consists of just FOUR ingredients. San Marzano tomatoes, garlic and oregano atop a 100% semolina crust. That’s it. I can NOT believe I could ever be so impressed by any pizza that doesn’t have a single ounce of cheese. In fact, I defy anyone to create more flavor using these few ingredients. It’s just not happening. I adore this pizza so much I wish I could have met Joe’s grandma so I could hug her and tell her so myself! That crispy crust is distinctively delish!
Next up were the Tempura Artichokes. Here the chef and his crew took fresh, long-stemmed Umbrian artichokes and delicately battered in tempura batter and quickly flash fried so they were crispy on the outside while warm and flavorful on the inside. Café Barbosso then dressed each one with a mouth-watering, lick-your-plate-clean lemon aioli. Simple and scrumptious.
From a daily feature menu, we got to sample The “Effin” Shrimp. That’s right. Effin Shrimp. The story there is that Chef Joe asked a regular diner what he should name the dish, and that’s what the gentleman came up with. Works for me! One of Jill’s favorites that evening, the Effin Shrimp features three jumbo white shrimp dredged in rice flour, pan seared, then sautéed with cherry peppers, lemon, and a white wine beurre blanc. Again, I’m amazed how so few ingredients created a decadent morsel of flavor. This definitely puts the Ef in “Effin!” As in fabulous, fantastic flavor!
While we enjoyed our chef’s tasting with a few cocktails and a glass or two of a recommended wine, Chef Joe gave us a quick bio, describing his culinary education as he travelled to and cooked in 35 different countries, covering every time zone on the planet.
That experience shines through on another of Café BarBosso’s Happy Hour offerings: the Chicken Shawarma. Roasted chicken thighs, (a personal fave of mine) are seasoned with coriander, turmeric, and a blend of more than 2 dozen other spices, and served with tzatziki, chimichurri, and pita toast points. Sooo full of flavor, this dish defies any words I could use to fully describe all the flavors packed in each bite. How about worldly brilliant?
What came next was quite an unexpected juxtaposition of crisp Chopped House Salad tossed with a white balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with . . . a meatball?! And that’s no ordinary meatball, this was a combination of pork, veal, beef, and lamb. The “Sunday Sauce” covering the meatball was the “cherry on top” of this salad, a.k.a. fresh San Marzano tomato sauce with a little pig-skin thrown in for added depth of flavor. Have I seen this anywhere else? Nope, that’s one we’ll be back for, and soon.
“Eat your pasta, mind your business, and pay your bill.” Like the sign outside the front door, so reads the back of the staff shirts as they energetically serve the customers. “I want people to be comfortable here, and this allows the servers to have fun,” explains Joe. “Café Barbosso should be enjoyed by everyone.” Hint, if you’re trying to figure out which imposing figure in the kitchen is Chef Joe DiMaggio Jr., watch for his trademarked “sinner” black tee.
Being so instructed to eat our pasta, we did quite happily, enjoying a rich Penne Rigatoni topped with a four-meat sauce of sausage, beef, pork, and veal, as well as carrots, onion, cognac, and smidgen of cream. This meal is starting to feel like an Italian Sunday Supper by this point. It doesn’t get much more comforting than a perfectly composed bowl of rich, creamy pasta.
The original artwork being created around us was a lot of fun to watch, and creates a great reason for diners to focus on where they’re at instead of burying their face in a cell phone. Chef explained that most of the artists return time after time to work at Café BarBosso, and often times a painting is purchased before it is even done! The night we visited a portrait of Elvis was being worked on, and more than one of us talked about where it would go in their house!
Going along with the concept of artistic expression, you have GOT to try Chef DiMaggio’s Ultimate Eggplant. This is an entrée sized portion of ten, paper-thin slices of eggplant layered with béchamel Parmigiano, fresh perlini mozzarella and marina sauce. Everyone raved about the eggplant, deciding that it certainly lived up to its name. Ultimate eggplant, indeed! That perlini mozzarella was ideal cheese for such delicate slices of eggplant. The cheese melted to a creamy finish while retaining the ideal texture to the eggplant.
While I know she loved the eggplant, I think the show-stopper for Jill, however, was the Seven Grain Crusted Salmon. (Me, I’m still keeping an eye on that one slice of Grandma’s Pizza that hasn’t been nabbed yet . . . only because it’s just a little out of my reach.) Chef Joe takes succulent Jail Island Salmon and elevates the flavor with a seven grain pumpernickel crust finished with a tarragon beurre blanc, served with honey basted carrots and roasted potatoes. Quite a robust dish at this point, so we were provided Chef’s sampling size, but even with the smaller portion Jill took a few tasty bites and chose to box up her salmon for lunch the next day. “This salmon is so delectable I want to savor it slowly, all by itself,” she said. Great will power, for sure. Mine was gone in a few bites!
“Has anyone here had tiramisu before?” asks Chef. Perplexed for a second, naturally everyone nods and says “yes” – “No you haven’t” Is his immediate response.
Turning on his heel, Chef D’Maggio Jr. returns with a sampler plate featuring a house-made cannoli, a gluten free chocolate ganache torte, and an espresso and cocoa-free tiramisu. The tiramisu is another of Grandma’s recipes, and quite simply one of the most surprising bites of the night. Who knew that tiramisu should taste this great? Instead of espresso and cocoa, Chef Joe uses fresh almonds, Frangelico and crumbled almond biscotti on top. The almond flavor is over the top, beyond any tiramisu I’ve ever tasted . . . it’s like I’ve never truly tasted tiramisu before, just like Chef said!
Café BarBosso’s menu is more far-ranging than I can go into here, with 16 personal signature pizzas, along with daily features, and a dazzling happy hour menu. But for a real adventure, you can enjoy a 5 course tasting for $40 per person, or 6 courses for $60. Chef will pick out his best dishes of the day and trust me, you’ll be happy with the results.
Before we sign off, I’d like to share how Café BarBosso got its name. When Chef Joe was a young boy growing up in the 60’s, he played stickball with his pals in front of Little Charlie’s, a restaurant in New York’s Little Italy known as a hangout for “certain” factions of the Italian mob. Frankie BarBosso, owner of Little Charlie’s, used to bet on young Joe’s stickball games, and if Joe’s team lost (!!!) they had to cover any loss Frankie suffered betting on them to win, which led to lots of experience in the kitchen, washing dishes, cleaning windows and generally sweeping up the joint. It was through this experience that Joe DiMaggio Jr. became comfortable in the kitchen, so to honor his old friend, Joe named his restaurant after him, calling it Café BarBosso, a true Italian peasant restaurant right here in Sarasota. Kinda explains that “Mind your business” part of the BarBosso vibe!
So, keeping that in mind, here’s all you need to know about Café BarBosso. Just drop by, order something yummy and be prepared to say “WOW!”
Oh, and pay your bill.