Family First

The business of Joseph’s Italian Bistro is a family affair.  Debra Borsuk (far left), the chef’s wife, runs the front of house while Chef Joseph Borsuk (far right) and his parents (center), Rose and Joe, prepare fresh meals daily. Photo by Bethany Turner

The business of Joseph’s Italian Bistro is a family affair. Debra Borsuk (far left), the chef’s wife, runs the front of house while Chef Joseph Borsuk (far right) and his parents (center), Rose and Joe, prepare fresh meals daily. Photo by Bethany Turner

As tomatoes and secret spices form crimson, slow-moving bubbles within a large metal pot on one of the few stove tops available, Joseph Borsuk cracks a joke about his modest kitchen. The entire space is relative to a woman’s walk-in closet, and it’s hardly room for a fine restaurant to serve 180 meals in four hours. Yet with what one chef may deem inadequate, Joe and his family—both literal and figurative—step up to the plate with linguine, lasagna, parmigiana and more.

In fact, the kitchen’s small space leaves no room for one thing: old food. Every single meal prepared at Joseph’s Italian Bistro is fresh—they cannot make it any other way. “Basically I get stuff in every day,” Joe explains. “I don’t have a big walk-in cooler where I can store it. I can’t get four cases of focaccia bread in at a time, because I have nowhere to put it. So we keep on this rotating basis: What we get in, we use.”

The marinara sauce which immerses the small room in a warm scent of garlic and tomato is made from scratch every day. Vegetables come daily from North Carolina farms, while the day’s catch arrives from Haag and Sons Seafood. (Ever wonder why they’re only open for dinner? It’s because food arrives each morning and prep occurs during what would be lunch.) Understanding the pertinence of keeping things local—as Joe and his wife, Debra, are the sole proprietors of the small business—they don’t look to corporate brands when they can choose regional foods.

Likewise, the bistro pays forward the support it receives from the community. I met with the Borsuks during National Nurses Week and National Teachers Appreciation Week. On Thursday Joe donated lasagna to a skilled nursing center, and on Friday he provided pasta for local teachers. The success of Joseph’s Italian Bistro—which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in September—comes in three parts: consistent and delicious dishes, quality service, and the desire to show thanks in the public realm.

Certainly the attitude shown to customers is the same for the staff, as three of the restaurant’s cooks have been with Joseph’s for eight years. A surprising aspect of the staff, however, is the inclusion of Joe’s parents, (also) Joe and Rose Borsuk. His mother shows up every morning at 8 a.m. to prepare her decadent specialty: meatballs.

“I am the only one who makes all the sauces,” Joe tells. “But meatballs—she’s the only one who makes the meatballs. One time I made them, and a customer said something to Debra. She came to me and said, ‘Joe, somebody said the meatballs weren’t the same.’ And I said, ‘Oh… That’s ‘cause I made them.’”

As Joe utters this to me, his face resembles what I imagine he showed Debra that same night. A pensive stare reveals a humorous sense of knowing. He realizes no one else can season or even craft meatballs the same as his mother. “From then on, I’ve never made them since,” he admits with a laugh. He explains, “There are no measurements. There’s not really anything written down. It’s just doing it the same way: a hand of this, a hand of that.”

In true Italian style (Borsuk, Polish, comes from Joe’s father’s side), Rose’s recipes are ingrained in her being, not inked on a note card. The same has been passed down to Joe.

“When I was a kid, she always tells me, I always wanted to help her in the kitchen,” the chef recalls of his mom. “She’s rock solid. She’s here every day. My dad actually comes in and washes the dishes that we mess up; it gives them something to do. They’re here for three hours or so. She does meatballs, she pounds the veal, she’s the one who makes our parmigianas—pounded out and hand-breaded. She’s so consistent. Everything she does is the same every day.”

Between Rose’s work and Joe’s handcrafted Italian sauces, first-time diners quickly turn into returning fans. “Most of the regulars will order the same thing every time,” Joe muses. “They go, ‘I want to try something else, but this is so good I keep getting it.’”

A RESTAURANT BACKGROUND
Joe grew up in Orange County, California, where his aunt and uncle owned an Italian restaurant called Azzaro’s. Around the age of 13, Joe became their dish washer. “I used to ride my bike from the house, and my parents would pick me up every night, put my bike in the trunk of the car, and drive me home,” he remembers with amusement.

As a kid he needed money because he raced motorcycles (he still does), and his parents wouldn’t fund the sport. “It’s funny that I ever stayed with that job, because the dish area was like a little cubby hole with no circulation,” he quips. “It was California. It was so hot. I thought, ‘How do people do this all the time?’”

Yet Joe never left the restaurant biz after that, and only stepped to the front of the house for a short reprieve.

As a junior in high school, his family moved to upstate New York, where his parents originally lived. Joe took a job under Larry Loveless at The Krebs, a landmark eatery in Skaneateles erected in 1845 on the Finger Lakes. (Ironically, there is a Southport, New York, nearby.)

Eventually, Joe’s younger brother, who attended school in New York, transferred to the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “My brother calls and says, ‘Why don’t you come down here? I got you a job and a place to stay,’” Joe describes. It was 1982.

“So I packed my stuff up—I had a Camaro back then—and I never went back. But when I got there, I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t have a place to live. He’d just told me that.”

Jokes aside, Joe was determined to stay in the South. He began in downtown Wilmington at Roy’s Riverboat Landing (now no longer Roy’s but still The Riverboat Landing). He then took a job as a dish washer at The Bridge Tender in Wrightsville Beach. Spending about 15 years with the company, Joe became a front-end manager for the brand. His first venture in ownership, Joe then opened a restaurant called Locals in the space which is now Boca Bay. Within a few years, Joe realized the front end was not his forte and returned to the kitchen.

THE MOVE TO BRUNSWICK COUNTY
Joe, who’d since met Debra during his time at The Bridge Tender and made her his wife, relocated to the Oak Island and Southport area. They opened a deli called Market Street and served up sandwiches with quintessentially New York names, such as The Brooklyn Bridge.

When a space overlooking the South Harbour Village Marina became available, the Borsuks quickly snagged it. Today, Debra selects every varietal for the bistro’s extensive wine list and trains the service staff. “I’m not a front-of-the-house person; I stay in the back,” Joe assures. “Debra takes care of all the bartenders and waitstaff—and our staff is really good. She strives for perfection in the front. She’s a lot harder to work for than I am! She runs a pretty tight ship.”

Meanwhile, Joe and his crew put out steamed clams, chicken picatta, and rib eye au poivre. Chops, lamb, and steaks were a welcomed addition to the menu.

The Davis Room, named so after Debra’s father, is a private seating space for 10. With reservations (and no fee), guests can feel at home while delighting in handcrafted Italian dishes. Photo by Bethany Turner

The Davis Room, named so after Debra’s father, is a private seating space for 10. With reservations (and no fee), guests can feel at home while delighting in handcrafted Italian dishes. Photo by Bethany Turner

The Borsuks also recently expanded the intimate restaurant’s seating in a way perhaps never offered in the Southport area. A side room on the left of the building was designed as a family’s dining room and can seat 10. Its walls are coated in delicate gold-taupe paint, while vintage shutters and a mirror breathe antiquity. Purposefully placed light fixtures add to the comfortable ambiance. The furniture used even came from Debra’s parents, and the room is dubbed The Davis Room in her father’s honor.

“They loved this place,” Debra chimes in. “My dad wouldn’t go anywhere else. We drove [to Waterford] to get him every Sunday to bring him down, and then in between sometimes.”

Deb’s father, now passed, sometimes snuck down on his own. In his 80s, and to the worry of his daughter, he’d hop in the car and venture to the bistro for his son-in-law’s cooking.

There is a room in the back of the house which will be called The Salter Room for Debra’s mother. Not yet completed, its views of the marina may just steal the show from Rose’s meatballs—but likely not. The Borsuks expect The Salter Room to accommodate private groups of 12. At the time of our interview, there were two church pews and a large dining table—perfect for family-style dinners—though Debra’s design was not yet finalized. For each room the Borsuks began with the ultimate blank slates: bland, white office spaces. Like the familiar allure of an Italian dinner with friends and family, the rooms become cozy and warm spaces set for just that.

Joseph’s Italian Bistro is located at 5003 O’Quinn Boulevard in Southport. Hours are 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and until 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. It is open on Sundays Memorial Day through Labor Day. For more information, call (910) 454-4440 or visit www.JosephsItalianBistro.com.

One Response to Family First

  1. Connie Kasahara says:

    Just seeing this on Facebook with Jody’s comment. Wow! I am so deeply impressed. I love the pix showing Aunt Rosie and Uncle Joe. And I wish I lived in Wilmington so I could come and visit. You are doing great. Love it!

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