WHO’S IN CHARGE Husband and wife Paolina and Vincenzo Lepore have worked seamlessly as one in Caffe Paolina, their 36-seat Swampscott restaurant, since 2003. Before they left their hometown of Calabria, Italy, to move to the United States to raise their family, they had worked in the restaurant business for years. Vincenzo is the chef, cooking classic Italian comfort food in his scratch kitchen. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner six days a week (closed Monday). Paolina serves customers like they are her family. “We think of the people when we cook,” she said. “We make everything with love.”
THE LOCALE Caffe Paolina is located in a little strip mall on winding Humphrey Street, “little” being the key word. We drove right past it. A tip: Look for the yoga studio next door. The longtime hidden gem has a BYOB policy: You can bring either wine or beer. After parking, follow the scent of garlic wafting outside. Inside, framed pictures of Calabria’s seaside and mountain views dot the walls, and Italian music streams live online from a radio station in Italy. An espresso machine glistens on a side counter. You’ve found the right place.
ON THE MENU “Homemade, every day” is the Lepores’ motto. Our meal began with complimentary bruschetta, a juicy, chunky tumble of chopped tomato, garlic, basil, and olive oil layered on a thick slice of fresh bread, one of the few things not made on site. Paolina quietly uncorked our bottle of wine. There is no uncorking fee. “I have loyal customers,” she later told me. “I feel like I’m taking something away from them.”
Feeling the family-like atmosphere, we ordered appetizers to share: arancini ($7), a large, lightly fried rice ball filled with peas, cheese, and Bolognese sauce, topped with fresh marinara sauce; and involtino di melanzana ($7), a crisp eggplant cutlet rolled with a creamy blend of ricotta, spinach, and Parmesan cheese, then topped with marinara. Each bite was so light and tender, I ordered the dinner-sized potion with tri-color fettuccine ($17 for two cutlets, and one side salad or pasta).
Vincenzo makes his pasta — including gnocchi, fettuccine, spaghetti, lasagna, and raviolis — with semolina instead of white flour, plus eggs, but no water.
A plate of affetato Italiano ($15) piled thin slices of soppressata, capicollo, prosciutto, and provolone, plus olives, and marinated mushrooms served over greens. Caprese salad ($11) had three thick slices of tomato topped with mozzarella and a sun-dried tomato. Pasta fagioli ($6), one of two comforting zuppe served daily, was chock full of white beans and small pasta, in a red broth with garlic, oregano, and fennel.
For entrees, we chose classics. Ravioli lobster ($22) was soft pasta pillows filled with ricotta and real lobster. The spaghetti bolognese ($16) was filling, the meat-based red sauce covering a plateful of homemade long noodles. Two tender veal cutlets sautéed with capers, white wine, and lemon made up the Vitello Piccata ($20).
I was delighted to see tartufo ($8). The Italian softball-shaped ice cream dessert originated from Pizzo, Calabria. A hard shell of chocolate covered a ball of chocolate and vanilla ice cream; a red cherry dotted the center. Paolina’s homemade tiramisu ($8) was a dreamy finish. The sponge cake, soaked in an intoxicating mix of coffee and brandy with powdered chocolate and fresh mascarpone cheese from Italy, was irresistible and — like the whole meal — worth repeating.
Caffe Paolina, 646 Humphrey St., Swampscott, 781-593-6455, www.caffepaolina.com .