Paolina’s personality and presence are an integral part of the dining experience at this family-operated locale. Born and raised in the Calabrese hilltop town of Palermiti, she learned much of what she knows from her mother. She recounts fond memories of baking fresh, warm breads with her and the smells of these doughy delights that lingered in the house for days. She remembers learning the art of making pasta by hand, as well, and letting it dry for hours on end on freshly lain sheets in her bedroom. Perhaps the greatest lesson that she learned from her mother was that quality food requires time, fresh ingredients, but mostly passion.
Her husband, Vincenzo, the restaurant’s head chef, was raised in the coastal region of Calabria, in the seaport village of Pizzo, which is situated on a steep cliff that overlooks the Gulf of Santa Eufemia. For Vincenzo, the fruits of the sea were the main ingredients in his meals during childhood. And when he and Paolina opened the first of their four restaurants in Calabria, they each utilized the ingredients close to their hearts to achieve success. With decades of experience as culinary entrepreneurs, it’s no wonder that Caffè Paolina has been hailed as one of the prime spots on the North Shore for Southern Italian cuisine.
The Lepore duo arrived on the American shores in 1996, leaving their beloved homeland behind them, in hopes that their children would thrive in America with better educational opportunities. After seven years of living in and around Boston, the Lepores decided to open their first restaurant in the United States, and in 2003, the cozy establishment, Caffè Paolina, opened its doors. Since its opening until the present time, the restaurant has been nominated on four separate occasions as “Business of the Year” in the Reader’s Choice Awards. Paolina attributes such accolades to hard work and passion, “Italian people, we never take the easy way. We’ve always had to work hard for things. That’s how we make it- hard work and keeping tradition.”
And Paolina certainly honors tradition. Each and every meal in her kitchen is made to order from scratch based on family recipes. From homemade fusilli, ravioli, tortellini, and gnocchi, to her mother’s original meatball recipe, each and every item on the menu is prepared with Calabrese love. Paolina even prepares her Lasagna Casalinga in the traditional Italian style, using fresh, creamy, besciamella, as opposed to ricotta. She states, “To use ricotta is to do it the easy way. In Italy we use besciamella; it takes time. Time to make the besciamella, to layer level by level the lasagna, with meat, parmiggiano, mozzarella, and besciamella.” Not a single step is spared; after all, quality food takes time.
Paolina’s superior attention to detail is just another feature that sets her delicacies apart from others. In an effort to honor her home country, she aims to have each meal display the colors of the Bandiera Italiana, the Italian national flag. In nearly every dish, one can find a spray of green white and red. Whether in the Calabrese salad, Pollo Cacciatore, or i Ravioli alla Bolognese, deep hues of red, white, and green can be spotted.
But in order to maintain a balance of traditional recipes and new ones alike, Paolina gives some of her mother’s recipes an inventive twist, “In the kitchen you need fantasy and imagination,” Paolina says, as she points to her Specials board, which this week, features Pollo Caffe and Brandy with Linguini Fiorentina. One would surely be hard-pressed to find a chicken slowly simmered in a coffee brandy sauce anywhere else. This dish is as inventive as it is knock-your-socks-off delicious. With a perfect balance of robustly nutty coffee, with the fruity sweetness of brandy, Paolina has proven her expertise in the kitchen.
Paolina’s eagerness to please and pride in cooking extends even beyond the perimeters of the restaurant. She urges loyal patrons to call a few days in advance to request special orders that may not appear on the regular menu. Her undisputed love of Italian cuisine and pleasing her guests are what keep me returning time and time again to Caffe Paolina. “You just have to love people,” she says, “I give the same welcome to everyone.”