XO on Elm Has that Loving Feeling
By Tom Long and Stacy Milbouer
Fiddlehead Contributing Editors
Restaurateur Rosa Paolini doesn’t just treat her customers like family, she welcomes diners with open arms at XO on Elm in Manchester. XO, of course, is shorthand for hugs and kisses.
“When I was trying to come up with a name for the restaurant, I was talking to a friend on the telephone and before she hung up, she said, ‘hugs and kisses’ and a light went on. It just seemed right,” Paolini said during a break recently.
Paolini, who was born and raised in Italy, co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Matt Mailloux. She shares the kitchen with Chef Leonardo Hernandez, who hails from Venezuela and has worked in Spain, leading to a multicultural cross-pollination in the kitchen.
“We didn’t learn how to cook in America, and that is reflected in the food,” said Paolini, her voice still holding the music of her native country. “I taught him a lot of my family’s recipes, and he’s taught me some of his.”
The restaurant’s menu is world-eclectic, influenced by Paolini’s and Hernandez’ travels and studies. There is Rosa’s Authentic Ragu alla Bolognese over fettuccini — a recipe passed down through her grandmother; Spanish Seafood Paella; Madeira Chicken Breast with figs, caramelized onions, sundried tomatoes, artichokes and fingerling potatoes, finished with Madeira wine and fresh herbs; and Peruvian Causa Limeña, with whipped potatoes, ground beef, eggs and creamy avocado sauce, just to name a few.
The restaurant is devoted to using the fresh, most local ingredients — no packaged or prepared food, even if those ingredients are more expensive.
“We do what we need to do, but we never cut corners,” said Paolini.
The restaurant is also dedicated to serving customers with a variety of dietary needs and preferences, including vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free and those on paleo and keto diets.
“All of these people deserve delicious food, not just a salad if you’re vegetarian or vegan,” Paolini explained.
Included on the XO menu are vegan/gluten-free appetizers and entrees like Venezuelan-style Yuka Sticks with guasacaca (avocado dipping sauce); Brussels Sprouts Vinaigrette with garlic and fresh herbs; Tostones Pico de Gallo – Venezuelan-style salsa with avocado over fried green plantains; Spanish Vegan Quinoa Paella; and Venezuelan Vegan Arepa — grilled white corn, zucchini, carrots and chia seed bread, vegetables, sweet plantain and avocado.
It’s an international menu from an international staff.
Paolini came to this country to study English and was about to return home when she had dinner with a friend at The Colosseum Restaurant in Salem.
“Annibale Todesca, the Colosseum’s owner, told me if I really wanted to learn how to speak English, I should work for him, and the interplay with customers would help me learn the language. So, I did,” she said.
That year she met John Paolini, a chef at the restaurant. The couple fell in love and soon had twin daughters who are currently students at the University of New Hampshire.
We decided we wanted to open a place of our own,” she said. They soon opened Piccola Italia Ristorante, also on Elm Street.
“Destiny can be bizarre, can’t it?” said Paolini, “Never in a million years did I think I would become a chef. I’ve always cooked, even as a child. And when I was growing up in Italy my mother could make the most delicious sauces with just a few fresh ingredients — tomatoes, basil and olive oil.”
John and she eventually divorced, and Rosa married Mailloux. They now have eight-year-old twin boys.
“When we opened XO, a lot of our customers were expecting fireworks, because John still owns and operates Piccola, and the restaurants are practically next door, but we get along beautifully. We’re still best friends. And my husbands are best friends.
“We’re just one big family. If I’m missing an ingredient, I go to him. If he’s missing something, he does the same. We even share employees.”
There’s that XO feeling again. The two families are the definition of a blended family.
Paolini, who is also a licensed massage therapist and esthetician, is passionate about family, food, nutrition and healthy living.
“We don’t use any preservatives in our food, no additives or unnatural colorings. We make everything from scratch.
“Many of my customers have been coming for years. They know food and they know they’ll never get a bad meal. And if somebody wants something special, I’ll make it for them, even if I have to go out to the store to get ingredients.”
XO on Elm is at 827 Elm St. in Manchester. Call 560-7998 or visit xoonelm.com for more information.