Most meals at my house come either in a box that has microwave cooking instructions on the side or are made by a person who asks "Would you like fries with that?" through a speaker system. My husband is a great cook who follows recipes to the letter, but finds little joy in the preparation of food.
I, on the other hand, kind of enjoy cooking, but I am a terrible chef in every sense of the phrase. Nothing is ever hot at the same time, I have no ability to blend complementary flavors, and everything ends up overly seasoned or as bland as a scoop of white rice in a bowl of skim milk. But with Cucina di Paolo just down the street, mealtime is about to become a pleasurable cheese-covered, meat-laden, dessert-filled affair more often.
The tiny restaurant, which seats roughly a dozen, has been at its Vista Avenue location for a little over a year. Paul Wegner and his loquacious wife, Mary Jean, have been handing out luscious little lasagna samples at farmers' markets for years and make a welcoming team. It's only minutes after stepping inside their cozy little eatery that you feel like you've known them for years and the food you're getting was specially made for you. When I called to place an order to go, Wegner stopped me after a couple of questions and suggested I just come in. He seemed to think the food displayed in the glass-front cabinets would speak for itself. A brick of scalloped potatoes ($7.75 with salad and garlic bread), baked macaroni and cheese ($7.50 with salad and garlic bread) and a triangle of chicken, spinach and Parmesan cheese quiche ($6.95) did plenty of talking. Tiramisu and German chocolate cake lost out to a slice of apple pie and a slice of something called County Fair pie ($5.50) as they screamed, "Pick us!" Not one to argue with assertive food, I did.
As the quiche, ham and potatoes, and mac and cheese warmed in the microwave at home, I doled out the green salad full of julienned carrots, black olives and Parmesan cheese into two bowls and reluctantly split the accompanying tart, chunky bleu cheese vinaigrette dressing (I may have accidentally poured the lion's share of the dressing onto my portion) and set two slices each of the browned garlic bread on the side. The scalloped potatoes, generously sprinkled with shredded Parmesan and slathered in a cheesy sauce, were rich and salty and so thick, I had to use a knife to get through all of the layers. The mac and cheese, with yellow and white shredded cheese atop it, was a happy little dish of noodles smothered in a creamy, dreamy cheese sauce and would have been right at home served on a designer plate in a fine dining Americana restaurant. The entrees were so hearty that we couldn't finish everything and, as a lover of leftovers for lunch, I gleefully refrigerated the remainders. And whether I'd left room was inconsequential because I was not about to eschew the County Fair pie for fullness. A few seconds in the microwave, and the butterscotch, chocolate and walnuts turned into a beautiful, gooey filling between a flaky crust and a crispy topping. I turned into a cave person, unable to form actual words, wiping melty chocolate swirls off the plate with my fingers. The only evidence that the apple pie was any good was an empty plate in front of my smiling husband.
The menu at Cucina di Paolo also boasts smoked salmon, halibut and fresh tomato quiche, tequila and lime halibut cheeks, salmon fillets, a Cucina Reuben, rotini with a choice of red and white sauces, a grilled brie and merlot wine jelly sandwich, bay shrimp bow-tie pasta salad, and chicken, meat or veggie lasagna among other things. Now it doesn't matter so much that I can't cook and my husband doesn't want to. The Wegners are just down the street.
—Amy Atkins has to refrain from pounding her chest and shouting "ooga booga" after dessert.