One of Foley’s best kept secrets, tucked just off of Highway 59, is Gelato Joe’s. There’s so much about Joe’s you just don’t understand. Its hidden secrets are worth a visit. But to explain why I have to explain me.
I’m a person who when people ask where I’m from, I don’t have an answer. We moved around a lot when I was a kid and the adventure bug stayed with me in my adult years. But one thing that’s always been constant is Italian food. A Polish-Irish girl I’ve always found comfort in hearty foods- latkas, pierogi, mashed potatoes, strong pints.
While I love the food of my background, pasta will always be the ultimate comfort food. A beautiful blank canvas that you can literally paint on- red sauce, pesto sauce, alfredo sauce. I’m hungry just thinking about it.
Everywhere I’ve been there’s been an Italian restaurant I’ve frequented and a lasting memory to match. In Middlebury, Vermont on the main street a small place called Angela’s where we would go as a family, some of the first outings I can recall are there.
Erie, Pennsylvania is spoiled for choice when it comes to Italian restaurants. Colao’s is tucked into a residential neighborhood in a white house on the corner where I bonded with my mother over my first limoncello on a visit home from college. A delicious deli, called Arnone’s in the heart of the Italian section of town, lovingly referred to as the spaghetto by some. I’d love popping in on the bright but freezing winter days for pesto, seeing all the workers on their lunch break lined up for something strong enough to get them through the rest of the cold day.
In Jackson, Tennessee there’s the Old Town Spaghetti Store where my husband and I went on one of our first dates. Another time they carded my mother, in her sixties and absolutely made her day.
Lucky enough to study abroad and having the most amazing melt-in-your-mouth gnocci in Milan with one of my best friends and learning when you think you’re ordering a large glass of wine, they just bring you the bottle.
The one place I could not find good Italian food was Tuscaloosa, where I spent two years getting my master’s degree. When I’d skip over to Mississippi to see my brother and sister-in-law who were living in Cleveland at the time, there was nothing there either. So when I moved to Foley I didn’t hold out much hope for finding comfort in pasta. I mean, let’s face it, carbs and bikinis don’t really mix and hearty food is often a bit too heavy for the heat.
Gelato Joe’s changed my opinion, but it took a while for me to discover it. My first friend in Foley and one of the most amazing coworkers a person could ask for Dana Denaburg, who at the time was Dana Overton, took me to lunch at Joe’s with a number of her Crossfit Strongheart buddies. She described it as a sandwich type place with paninis and salads. I do love a good sandwich so I was excited.
Even when we drove up and I saw the place for the first time, tucked behind the PenAir bank, with a little Tiki Bar attached, I had no idea of the hidden Italian treasures inside. And then I opened the door.
There it was, flashbacks of so many places I’d been, scents of marinara that felt like I, the new girl, was being wrapped into a familiar cozy blanket. The Italian cookies piled high in the case, reminded me of forays into Little Italy in New York City. The case of layer upon layer of cakes reminded me of some of my favorite New Jersey diners. And the salads. Broccoli, seafood, Caesar, pasta, pretty much anything you could imagine. My mouth was watering like Pavolv’s dog!
I got the lasagna that first time, it was on special and to be honest, I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t choose and I didn’t want to hold up the long line of locals winding almost out the door. It came with a salad, Dana said I needed to get the strawberry, so I did, and even now I have a hard time getting anything else.
In the middle of winter, Gelato Joe’s strawberry salad had me tasting spring. Sweet strawberries, balancing the punch of a strawberry vinaigrette, tempered by blue cheese crumbles. It was delicious. The lasagna was just as amazing. The strings of melted cheese as you pull the fork away from your mouth, the creamy ricotta and the smooth marinara played together perfectly, with the crispy garlic bread to mop up every last drop of sauce. But forewarning, you probably can’t eat it all in one go.
I was in shock, delicious Italian food hidden behind a Tiki bar, with a name called Gelato Joe’s. I was so excited it wasn’t long before I was back, trying new things. Probably my favorite, the steak and portabella stuffed ravioli with a simple garlic butter sauce. Now that did not require a doggie bag.
While every visit doesn’t require a doggie bag, it does require dessert. I haven’t gone the gelato route yet, because I’m working my way through the cakes, there’s always something delicious I haven’t tried. Cheesecake drenched in fruit. Layers upon layers of hummingbird cake. Or the “Better than Sex” cake, which I’m sure they refer to as something else in front of children. Chocolate cake with fluffy whipped cream and caramel drizzle. Heaven.
But it’s not just the Italian food or desserts that bring in Joe’s customers. Those looking for something healthy are choosing a salad sampler that lets you choose from the incredible number of salads in the case. There are paninis and a surprisingly delicious cheesesteak- I’m a sucker for a cheesesteak, there’s a story there too. That’s why you can’t really claim Joe’s identity as Italian, it’s just this place, a place locals love, that you’ll love too.
And I do love it. Just like all my other Italian favorites, there are things I will always remember at Joe’s. Like forgetting my dad was put on a no gluten, no dairy diet by his doctor and taking him there where he enjoyed his salad sampler but spent the entire time staring at the Italian cookies and gelato. Or the time we sat out by the tiki bar enjoying a cocktail when an elderly man busted out the most amazing rendition of Uptown Funk on karaoke night.
Gelato Joe’s is more than the comfort cuisine of a girl without a hometown, it’s a different thing to different people. It’s memories you haven’t made yet over food you’ll be back for.
For more on Gelato Joe’s visit our dining page.