Howard County is so celebrated for Asian and Indian restaurants that sometimes it's easy to forget that the county is also home to good, casual restaurants representing more familiar cuisines.
Chef Paolino Cafe, located in an Ellicott City shopping center, is one of those spots. Though some dishes needed a bit more attention, a pair of great entrees, served by a friendly (if unpolished) staff, made our meal at Chef Paolino a likable one.
Scene & Decor The Ellicott City restaurant is divided into two sections: a main floor, where orders are placed at a counter then delivered to the table, and a downstairs bar with table service. The spaces have separate entrances; when we arrived, we missed the bar entrance completely, which made our seating decision simple.
We sat upstairs, in a casual, comfortable room with green walls, stone accents and lots of booths. When we arrived, around 6:30 on a Monday, the restaurant was nearly empty; over the next 45 minutes, about half the tables filled.
Just after entering, we experienced a moment of confusion. We knew we needed to order at the counter but couldn't find menus. Thankfully, a staff member noticed our lost faces and pointed us in the right direction: to the stack of menus sitting on a table just to the left of the entrance. The counter, where we'd order, was just to the right, so we naturally turned that way when we entered.
During dinner, we watched him do the same for nearly everyone who walked in the door. If the menus were in a more obvious place — maybe on a table between the door and the counter — the beginning of the meal would be easier for everyone.
Appetizers Unfortunately, our meal got off to a tough start on the food front. Our entrees came with salads that seemed haphazardly tossed on small plates. The greens and vegetables were crisp but thick slices of bread, served on top, were unevenly toasted.
Mozzarella-topped bruschetta ($6.50) suffered from a similar bready problem; the chopped tomatoes were placed on bread slices that were slightly too thick and not toasted enough. Ordering the mozzarella-topped version of the appetizer was also a mistake; the cheese added little to the dish.
Entrees After the rocky start, we were worried about our entrees; after all, restaurants often do a better job with appetizers than with main courses. Fortunately, at Chef Paolino, the opposite was true.
A plate of spaghetti carbonara ($12.95), that creamy, pancetta-studded comfort food, was fabulous. The eggy sauce was well-seasoned, with chunks of pancetta and mushrooms for added heft. With just enough pepper, the sauce was both savory and lively.
Veal piccata ($18.95), served over spaghetti, was equally enjoyable. Thin slices of veal were tender and mild, and the sauce was a lovely mixture of butter and lemon, with big capers adding extra zing.
Texturally, the sauce was thick and rich. While we loved the veal itself, the sauce and pasta alone would have been a satisfying meal.
Dessert With dessert, the meal backslid just a bit, when tiramisu ($3.95) arrived pre-packaged in plastic. It's flavor was sweet and pleasant but the texture veered into mushy territory.
Drinks With dinner, we nursed a glass of pinot grigio ($5.95) and a Peroni lager ($4.25). Both were serviceable choices with the entrees — though the white wine triggered some confusion when we ordered. A selection of red wines sat on the counter, in front of the cash register, but we didn't spot any list of whites. When we asked for one, the young man behind the register seemed unsure if any white wines were even available. After a moment, he asked a manager, who listed a few varietals, then grabbed the pinot grigio from a refrigerated case.
Service The wine uncertainty was indicative of our overall service experience. Our meals arrived quickly and everyone at Chef Paolino was friendly and as helpful as they could be. But they were also young, without the confidence that more seasoned servers (or even cashiers) exude.
They were kind, though, and seemed to genuinely want us to have a good time. That attitude, along with those terrific entrees, helped us do that.