There's something welcoming about Joey B's, the new Federal Hill restaurant and bar from Joseph Bivona, who also owns The Grille at Peerce's in Phoenix.
At this low-key new city outpost, Bivona has put his management skills to good use. Joey B's is casual and fun with a menu that has a few misses, but adds some new twists to typical Federal Hill bar cuisine.
Scene & Decor Maybe it's the fresh red and black paint job, or it's the cute sports art on the walls, or maybe it's just because we visited Joey B's during a downpour: Whatever the reason, we found the place inviting, cozy and warm.
We were the only diners sitting at an actual table during our visit — the storm probably kept most people safely inside their homes. Still, a small group gathered at the bar, chatting with the friendly bartender and waiting patiently for the rain to stop so the Oriole's game could start.
Appetizer We started with the house specialty called — appetizingly — Joey B's Balls ($7.95). The balls in question are arancini — fried balls of rice, with roots in Sicily, that have recently popped up on appetizer menus at casual spots all over the city.
Joey B's version comes with a choice of stuffing; we opted for Buffalo mozzarella. Though we often think of arancini as somewhat dense, these were hot and melty, with more cheese than rice. Topped with marinara sauce — and with extra sauce on the side for dipping — the balls were like a trendy version of mozzarella sticks. We loved them.
Entrees Bivona has pulled a couple dishes from the menu at Peerce's, including a hearty entree of short ribs ($22.95). The tender beef was well-seasoned and slathered with a sticky, sweet red barbecue sauce.
A side of asparagus was cooked and seasoned nicely and a large helping of crispy sweet potato tots was better than most we've tried.
A Hawaiian-inspired chicken sandwich served with chips ($10.95) was nicely cooked and hearty but lacked sizzle. Layered on a bun with grilled pineapple and a thick slice of ham, the sandwich was fine as far as it went, but could have used a heavier hand with the teriyaki marinade, or maybe a soy-based dipping sauce.
Drinks Joey B's has a fun list of specialty cocktails, so we were disappointed to discover that the one we ordered — the City Fair Crush ($8) — was lackluster. The drink sounded great: a lemon crush garnished with a peppermint stick, as a nod to Baltimore's famous lemon sticks.
Unfortunately, when she delivered the drink, our waitress regretfully informed us that the bar was out of peppermint sticks (and the CVS, where they would have run to buy some, was closed). Our first sip lead to bigger disappointment: the drink was thin and, given the fake-sugar flavor, must have been made with diet lemonade.
There's a market for low-calorie mixed drinks; the concoction makes sense on a Federal Hill bar menu. But we wished the drink's description had clued us in to its low-cal ingredients.
We switched to a decent glass of Callia Malbec ($6.50), a drinkable red from Argentina, and happily stuck with it.
Service Because we were our waitress's only table, our service was prompt; she handled the timing well, without hovering as we ate. She was sweet, too, striking the right balance between friendly and professional.
Given the banter we observed between the bartenders and the crew at the bar, the rest of the Joey B's staff was equally affable.
The only lag came after we ordered dessert. It took long enough that we started wondering if few diners order dessert at Joey B's. If that's the case, more people should.
Dessert Joey B's apple pie ($8), made in-house, was a delight. Flaky crust surrounded gooey, sweet filling. Warm and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it fortified us just enough to head back out into the monsoon.
Even though it wasn't busy during our visit, it was easy to imagine Joey B's bustling and full of energy. Whether quiet and calm or crowded and crazy, it's a promising addition to Federal Hill.
Back story: Opened in August 2013 by Joseph Bivona, also the owner of The Grille at Peerce's in Baltimore County, Joey B's is a friendly Federal Hill bar/restaurant with good bar food and a handful of more upscale dishes.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: Joey B's Balls, the restaurant's signature appetizer, are arancini — fried rice balls — stuffed with a variety of fillings. Try the Buffalo mozzarella-stuffed version, which are light on rice and heavy on creamy cheese, served with bright tomato sauce for dipping.
Where: 1015 South Charles Street, Baltimore
Open: 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Bottom line: Better-than-average bar food and a welcoming environment in Federal Hill