This article first appeared in The Independent Newspaper. Read more about #EverythingEastEnd here
Italian restaurants are like Italian people; each obtain their own unique, robust personality with one commonality, a love for food. Occupying the former space of EMP Summer House and Moby’s in East Hampton, is Paola’s East. What began 33 years ago in New York City has made its way to the Hamptons. Paola’s has officially opened its heart and kitchen doors to the East End community, bringing family recipes from Rome.
“The beautiful thing about a neighborhood restaurant is you stick to those basic motivations,” said owner Stefano Marracino of the existing business model that his mother, Paola Bottero, began 33 years ago. The restaurant started with only 10 tables, 32 seats, and two seating times, “it was the boot camp for making anything else afterwards, better. We wish to do the same thing out here. Just be a neighborhood restaurant.” Fast forward to today, and Paola is supportive but not physically active in the day-to-day operations.
As gastronomy is moving away from the molecular and back to the basics, Marracino is bringing simple Roman cuisine to East Hampton, “driven by love.”
House-made mozzarella, insalata di barbe, artichoke, the list goes on. With an existing over 80-percent repeat clientele already existing in New York City, Paola’s East plans to incorporate generational recipes with “a little influence with what’s local and fresh.” Aiming “to improve quality but not completely reinventing. Basic ingredients, simple combinations.”
From the moment I entered the doors to shaking owner Stefano Marracino’s (son of Paola Bottero) hand as I left the restaurant, the team was attentive and warm; it brought me back to dining at Don Peppe’s in Ozone Park, Queens. Folding napkins when guests got up from the table, memorizing the orders, allowing digesting time before bringing out the next course, lightheartedly smiling in small conversation — all with classic Italian music playing in the background. Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, tunes from yesteryear brought me back to dancing with my grandfather in the living room on Sunday mornings as “Sounds of Sinatra” echoed in the background.
A red wine arrived, 2016 Pinot Noir from Oregon, at a chilled, roughly, 51 degrees Fahrenheit. It added a lightness to what was bound to be a traditionally heavier meal, as did the light, fluffy bread with olive oil for dipping. To start, an insalata di barbe, roasted fresh beets with Montrachet goat cheese, toasted hazelnuts, orange segments, and watercress. It was fresh, light, and the hazelnuts almost convinced me I was eating a healthy version of Ferrero Rocher. Alongside it was Roman style meatballs with veal, all-natural Hampshire Pork meatballs, tomato sauce, and ricotta and pecorino cheese. It had a more fluid consistency than the sauces I’ve tried in the past, without being watered down, and with a mild, rather than spicy, flavoring. In each bite, I could taste the bread holding all the juices together, making it a soft but subtle consistency.
The first courses were two pasta dishes. A fettuccine Bolognese with grass-fed beef and natural Hampshire pork. Making tabletop headlines was the veal and spinach ravioli, served at room temperature with shaved grana, black truffles, and hints of sage. Each forkful absorbed more of the light, white truffle sauce before it hit my tongue in an explosion of satisfaction.
Marracino grew up with the entire family involved in the restaurant, including his two daughters, but he’s taken the reins and absorbed the pressure. With 45 employees, many of them loyally employed for 20 years, it’s a lot of coordination but the core is respect.
Before continuing onto the next courses, my guests and I sipped our wine as we observed the staff greet guests, refill our waters whenever the glasses were below the half line, and mingle on the side with one another. This is more than a restaurant, it’s a true team of staff who genuinely enjoy each other’s company and want to be there, many of whom uprooted from the city to move to the area. It’s a devotion, and dedication, that’s rare.
A veal Milanese arrived that I could’ve continued to eat endlessly. It was thinly sliced, lightly breaded, and tender. With a touch of lemon on the rucola salad and tomatoes, it made for a meaty yet simplified dish. With it, a skirt steak that appeared small in portion was actually the ideal size. I opted for rare to medium-rare temperature and it came out exactly as such, with a slightly crisp outside.
When asked what to have for dessert, out of three choices, I felt obligated, as a food writer, to try all three. All the better to inform the public, of course. Ricotta and mascarpone cheesecake, tiramisu, creme caramel. I couldn’t pick a favorite, but the cheesecake stood out because I can honestly say I’ve never tried one with mascarpone cheese and it made an understated but notable difference.
“Right now, it is a pop-up dynamic and everyone has been embracing it. Because we’re not threatening what’s existing.” The restaurant is currently partnering with a farm in Woodstock, where Marracino takes his turn on the tractor, and plans to incorporate local farms, vineyards, and breweries as the months progress to lower the carbon footprint.
When a restaurant serves consistency on each plate, there is no need to anchor the menu with an over-the-top item. Paola’s East menu is executed in such a way that every dish, from start to finish, is unwaveringly delicious.
“We don’t want to interrupt we want to be involved and to add something,” he stated. A passion for the community drives deep into the heart of this operation, hoping to start cooking classes as well as vocational training and therapy. Food, from eating to cooking, is therapeutic as well as a passion. “To be able to work in a restaurant in this environment, it’s a dream.”