Josie and Tony’s

That’s Amore!

Written By Cindy Clarke | Photography by Colin Clark

t’s a cultural thing throughout Italy, the welcoming of guests like family with a warm smile, a friendly hug and an air kiss or two. Greetings like that, whether you are visiting a private residence or a neighborhood restaurant for the first time or the next, truly make you feel at home from the moment you walk in the door.

Given the name Josie and Tony’s and scripted as a love letter to owner Josh Mesnik’s old world grandparents, it’s also what you might expect when you stop by South Norwalk, Connecticut’s newest Italian restaurant for a mid-week dinner like we did. Part Arthur Avenue deli, part supper club and all about making dining a family affair, Josie and Tony’s was built on memories, inspired by theatricality and created with heart. As Josh told us after his effervescent hostess Emma welcomed us inside, “Have fun tonight and make yourselves at home. I’m really glad you’re here.”

From the way the entire evening’s performance played out, we know he meant it. We were shown to the best seats in the house, tucked against the wall at the end of a red leather banquette, in full view of the burgundy and white checkered tablecloths that topped well-spaced café tables in the middle of the room and the gleaming long bar across the room. White tablecloths, bud vases with red roses and small table top lamps on every table evoked fond memories of old school restaurants I had grown up with, transporting me back in time when dinners out on the town were special dress-up occasions. The photographs on the wall harkened back to another era too, casting a spotlight on familiar faces, fondly remembered.

This was all part of the set design our theatre-loving host envisioned for his first act as owner of his restaurant and dinner club, a relaxed, intimately lit speakeasy atmosphere with accents of vintage décor, including tin ceiling tiles, and modern-day vibes to revive the nightlife culture of another time and place.

Before the curtains went up on our meal, Josh gave us a tour of lower floor rooms only open to his founding members, a group of 50 dedicated patrons who ponied up a membership fee to join his exclusive dinner club and take advantage of benefits not available to anyone else. They include private bathrooms, amenity rich; tastings in his under-the-restaurant wine cellar, which, when renovations are complete, will resurrect the secrecy and exclusivity of prohibition era venues like Manhattan’s Twenty-One Club; and guaranteed dinner reservations within 24 hours at reserved tables, personally engraved placard in place. Each member is immortalized, Al Hirschfeld style, in hand-drawn celebrity caricatures that grace the wall atop the stairway. If you ever dined at Sardi’s, the theatre district landmark in Manhattan, you’ll feel like you’re back there when you’re here.

We walked past the streamlined, open-doored kitchen on our way back to our table, getting a back stage preview of the menu Josh and his team, brother chefs Marcelo and Francisco Flores, among them, cooked up for their guests, appetites revved up and ready to add our own reviews. An acclaimed sommelier with front of the house general management experience, Josh is no stranger to back of the house operations at sought-after restaurants where discriminating diners keep them on their best game. From the elegant Breakers in Palm Beach to the White Elephant on the elite island of Nantucket and the storied Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, he has paired and poured wines to enhance tastes and culinary offerings of all flavor and form. His specialized wine expertise literally raises the bar for guests at Josie and Tony’s and we couldn’t be more thrilled.

Dining in Italy is synonymous with good food and good times, with wine being a big part of the show. It’s a conversation starter, a meal enhancer, and a bridge between courses, helping to cleanse the palate and prepare the taste buds for the next dish. The all-Italian wine list here is extensive, knowledgably hand-selected by the expert resident sommelier himself and confidently recommended by the wait staff who not only know what’s best with every dish you order, they are genuinely enthusiastic about making sure you’re happy with every sip and selection.

Listening intently to our wish list for the perfect reds and matching it to our food choices, our waiter Nathan suggested we sample a trio of palate pleasing wines, including repeat glasses of Tenuta di Sesta Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany; a super Tuscan named Campo Al Mare; and a Barolo from Piedmont where all the wines are sublime and toast-worthy.

For openers, we ordered the Zucchini Flowers, stuffed with Ricotta cheese and herbs and a dollop of summer tomato sauce, and served in a petal-perfect pinwheel that bloomed anew with every bite. The chef’s special soft shell crab came out next, shedding any preconceived notions we had about soft shell crabs that came before. Like the fleeting seasonal treat it is, it featured fresh tomatoes, peppers and onions and was gone before we realized how quickly we ate it.

Caesar salad was said to be invented in 1924 by Italian chef Caesar Cardini who owned a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. Legend has it that after an especially busy fourth of July rush depleted his food supplies, he made do with what he had on hand for his remaining guests, entertaining them with a tableside salad presentation that fast became a culinary hit. Long gone are the days when Caesar salad was only prepared and served this way, but Josh brought it back to life again at his restaurant. We were told that Marcos makes upwards of 50 salads this way every night and after watching, filming – and devouring – our Caesar Salad, we understand why this is an encore specialty of the house.

The pasta possibilities on the menu ranged from traditional to tantalizing in full or half-plate portions. House made ravioli, spaghetti, fettucine and pappardelle, topped with signature sauces, stuffed with rainbow chard or boasting foie de gras and chicken livers, cater to every craving. We couldn’t resist the Swiss Chard Ravioli, a winning trifecta of pine nuts, pecorino and parmesan that brought out every colorful flavor of the rainbow chard. And the pappardelle, foie-graed with hints of chicken liver, a surprising delicacy, was a personal favorite.

The eggplant parmigiana we had to sample from a choice of all-appetizing entrées we didn’t have any more room for, was served Sicilian-style with basil and tomato and was simpler and lighter than the classic recipe, a great choice for over-indulging diners.

As much as we wanted to dive into dessert, cannolis, zeppoles, cake, and cookies, we drank it in sensible sips instead. Josie and Tony’s signature cocktails are developed by rising star mixologist James Lucchesi, who keeps raising the bar before, during, and after dinner. My Industry Standard, concocted with Milan-made Fernet Branca, crème de cacao, mint chocolate whipped cream and lemon zest, unequivocally changed any standard that came before and kept me up that night dreaming of more. Likewise for the steaming hot, aptly named Guarda La Luna, hand-crafted with Reposado Tequila, dulce de leche espuma, and spiced Mexican chocolate, and translated to mean “look at the moon.” Which we did, all the way home.

It’s not often you go to a new restaurant where nobody knows your name and leave with a sense of belonging that makes you long to return often and soon. But that’s the way Josh and his talented team intended it to be, whether you are a VIP member of the club with your portrait on the wall or a wanna-be-there-too guest who was made to feel like a VIP the whole night through.

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