A cafe should be a small, quiet place with wood and wrought iron trim. It should have a menu remarkable for its discriminating brevity. And it should be attended by astute but casual servers watchful of beverage levels and always ready to light your Gauloises.
OK, I'm awake now. Dream over. But given my ideal for the genre, I'm always a bit let down with a place that bills itself as a cafe but looks, instead, a lot more like a cafeteria, with a long chow counter and Formica-topped tables, harried order takers and mall lighting. Thus my prejudice, if that's what it is, prompted my first reaction to Chef Paolino Cafe: It's a cafeteria.
11:56 We enter Chef Paolino Cafe and pause to gawk at the pizzas and spinach rolls on the other side of the counter and to check out the overhead menu. Next we moved to the salad, sandwich and pasta menus farther along the lunch line. We determine our orders. My friend takes the sandwich counter. I hit the pizza station.
My experience with cafeterias that sell pizza by the slice has almost always included heat lamps. Paolino, instead, has a variety of pizzas assembled and on display and bakes each piece to order. I request a slice of the sausage and pepperoni and another of the broccoli, ricotta and mozzarella. The guy behind the counter slips each slice into the oven. In less than five minutes, they were plated and handed over the counter.
12:09 We commence gnoshing on our two sandwiches, two slices of pizza and an order of fries. Paolino also offers a selection of salads and pastas along with a breakfast menu that includes omelets and bagels and a few sandwiches, all served from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
The seating in the main dining area consists of tables and booths. It's utilitarian and tight in places but clean and, despite a growing crowd, with customers coming and going, we were able to hold a conversation in normal tones. A second dining area, the Chef Paolino lounge, is darker, has a full bar, and more comfortable-looking tables and booths.
The chicken cheese steak sandwich caught my eye, which surprised me because I'm not a big fan of cheese steak sandwiches and consider a chicken cheese steak an abomination along the lines of turkey bacon. But for whatever reason it sounded good to both me and my dining companion. He ordered the chicken cheese and promised to let me try it. I went for the Santino. Both sandwiches go for $6.29. And at least in terms of quantity, you get what you pay for.
The Santino packs prosciutto, mozzarella, basil leaves and tomato into a sub roll with a flaky crust and a soft fresh interior. Tomatoes notwithstanding, the sandwich was a touch on the dry side. An aioli might have solved that; mustard would have overpowered the rather weakly flavored but still good prosciutto. The basil was the winning touch and Paolino wisely goes easy on it. Fresh mozzarella rounds it out and gives the Santino some heft.
I liked the chicken cheese more than my friend. He complained that it was seasoned with nothing but cheese and onions and wanted more spice … or something. To me, it was fat and juicy and seasoned well enough to give all the ingredients room to show off. Even more than the Santino, this sandwich was big, filling and, in context, pretty darn good.
12:35 We're almost done. I'm still working the fries, which have a bit of an old-school diner feel to them: large-ish, oily-soggy-ish, and if you like that mode, guilty-pleasure-ish.
We both think the broccoli, ricotta, mozzarella pizza was maybe a reach for Paolino's kitchen, serviceable and a nice departure from typical cafeteria fare, but lacking the flair of a committed pizzeria. The sausage and pepperoni slice, on the other hand: killer. The equilibrium struck by thin crust, modestly piquant sauce and chewy cheese wonderfully supported generous cuts of nippy sausage and pepperoni. Nothing subtle about this pizza. If I worked in or near the Bank of America building in which Paolino's is housed, I'd be a regular for this item alone. Nothing guilty about this pleasure. It's sinful — but so what.
12:41 We finish, clear our table and exit. Chef Paolino's is no foodie paradise. But it is a good place to grab lunch. It's inexpensive, varied and attractive enough to make regular visits reasonable and even irresistible if you find a few menu items that really work for you. Places like this could give cafeterias a good name.
Where: 100 S. Charles St.
Lunch hours: 11:00 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Lunch entrees: $2 - $7.25
[Key: ✭✭✭✭ Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]
Dining time45minutesCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun