There's something special cooking at Josie's Ristorante in Boynton Beach. Or, should we say, there's someone special cooking at this 22-year-old restaurant.
At first glance, Josie's may not seem like the type of place you'd find Mark Militello, a James Beard Award-winning chef often credited for bringing contemporary American cuisine accented with Asian and Caribbean influences, tropical fruit, and local seafood to Miami. But don't let appearances fool you.
When Mark Militello first joined Josie's Ristorante as a consultant last September, the plan was originally to help streamline the kitchen and refine recipes. The well-known South Florida chef says he didn't think it would turn into a full-time job.
"Now I'm here cooking almost every day," says Militello. "We're taking the restaurant to the next level, and that takes time."
Located in the Riverwalk Plaza at the corner of Woolbright Road and Federal Highway, Josie's Ristorante has a solid track record serving homemade Italian fare in Boynton Beach. Originally established in 1992, the location has remained family owned and operated for over two decades since Steve Setticasi purchased the business from the founding owner one year after it opened.
Today, the senior Setticasi's son, Sebastiano, has taken the reins as chef de cuisine, with Militello as both a culinary mentor and guide.
A Texan by birth, Militello studied at Marquette University, but never attended culinary school. In 1998, fueled by a natural talent and passion, the chef opened his first restaurant – Mark's Place – in North Miami. It earned rave reviews and just two years later, Food & Wine named him one of the "10 Best Chefs in America."
In the ensuing years, he operated four other namesake restaurants in South Florida, including Mark's Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale, Mark's at Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Mark's South Beach on Miami Beach, and Mark's CityPlace in West Palm Beach.
Over the past year, diners in the know have driven from Orlando to Miami for a taste of the chef duo's culinary collaboration. After several years of consultation from Miami to the Hamptons in New York, Militello says he has transitioned to a full-time position at Josie's, helping to transform this once-hidden Palm Beach County Italian eatery into a destination dining location. You can find him in a chef's apron at the kitchen almost every day of the week working alongside Sebastiano, including during the Sunday brunch.
For longtime patrons, the Josie's Ristorante menu may not look radically different than it did in years past. While many of the recipes have stayed virtually unchanged, the ingredients and method of preparation have helped earn the establishment its upscale ristorante title, says Sebastiano.
"I've learned to keep it simple and to think outside the box," said Sebastiano. "But most of all, I've learned how to take a dish and make it my own."
Josie’s Ristorante is Italian, yes, but it's also the right balance of classic and modern technique. All dishes are simply prepared using high-end, fresh ingredients and a more handcrafted technique, says Militello, from the housemade pasta, prime meat meatballs, and traditional lasagna to cioppino, pan-roasted black grouper, and a veal salto in bocca.
In addition to small decor changes and some modifications to the wine list, one of the biggest changes in quality over the last year has been — of all things — the salad. Longtime patrons might miss the free iceberg lettuce one they'd get at the beginning of their meal but will quickly change their mind when served the new garden salad.
Prepared with greens from Swank Specialty Produce, tomato, black olive, cucumber, apple, and a homemade balsamic herb dressing, it's a perfect example of how a few small changes can make all the difference, says Sebastiano.
Another change will come when Militello and Sebastiano host the restaurant's first wine pairing dinner, Traditions, at 6 p.m. on Thursday, December 8. The four-course, seasonal menu will feature a modern twist on traditional Italian cuisine accompanied by a selection of handcrafted wines from multigenerational family estate vineyards in Italy. Anthony Pannone of Florida Wine Company will be a guest speaker. Guests can expect regular pairing dinners to be organized more frequently moving forward.
"The best Italian food is simple and elegant. The focus really needs to be on the freshness and quality of the ingredients," said Militello. "And that's what we're doing here."
Josie's Ristorante. 1602 S. Federal Hwy., Boynton Beach; 561-364-9601; josiesristorante.com.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram