Now that Tuscan-inspired food is ubiquitous, the dining populace is turning elsewhere for Italian thrills. In the last few years, there’s been a spate of new restaurants hailing from Emilia-Romagna, the northern region that gave us Parmesan, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, Bolognese sauce, and, less encouragingly, Lambrusco wines. Evidence of this trend is the burgeoning mini-chain begun by Piadina—also including Malatesta and Gradisca—which flourishes south of 14th Street.
Paolina’s decor is the most whimsical of the four. Up near the ceiling lurks a miniature multi-car pileup that would do Godard’s Weekend proud, and the blockheaded kickers from a foosball machine have disported themselves around the room in unexpected places. A Magic Marker has been deployed in the bathroom to great effect, and a clock plastered to the ceiling at on odd angle—shades of Salvador Dalí—is permanently stuck on 5:05 a.m. (or is it p.m.?). More practically, the French doors swing open to catch summer breezes on this quintessential East Village corner, and customers can sit on the sidewalk under the bright orange awning and watch the Life Café receive its hapless diners, or look across the street at a new super-laundromat, where a glass counter encourages you to browse for toe rings while doing the wash.
In common with its predecessors, Paolina offers piadina ($6.50), a homemade flatbread wrapped around fillings of spinach, ham, or tomato and mozzarella. This staple of Romagna—the southern, poorer half of Emilia-Romagna—is not to be missed. So, too, Paolina serves up a meaty rendition of fettuccine Bolognese, which the menu more accurately calls tagliatelle al ragu ($11), in recognition of the sauce’s French origins. Stuffed with mushrooms and mantled in cream sauce, crespelle ($12) are also French-leaning: toothsome crepes that probably originated in the days when Gallic men descended to regional towns like Piacenza in their search for brides. Filled with French words and intonations, the Piacentini dialect provokes mirth among other Italians.
Amazingly, Paolina manages to stake out new culinary territory despite its three siblings. This territory includes fagotto di Paolina ($5.50)—a fried and blistered turnover stuffed with ham, mushrooms, and cheese. It’s deposited in a shallow puddle of tomato sauce improved with fresh basil leaves. Another fascinating regional specialty is maialino al latte ($12), a substantial pork fillet browned in oil, then braised in milk, tenderizing the meat and reducing to a very mellow gravy. In The Food of Italy, Waverly Root notes that this sauce is often flavored with white truffles. Don’t expect any truffles at Paolina. Instead, the pork is wrapped around a dense wad of spinach.
Ranging farther from home turf, Paolina offers asparagi alla Milanese, depositing a woodpile of perfectly steamed beauties in a buttery Parmesan sauce, topping them with a runny fried egg. Cheese sauce + yolk = cholesterol nirvana. Reflecting the same sense of humor that informed the decor, cotoletta autostrada ($11) is a chicken cutlet named after the superhighway that forms the transportational backbone of Italy, on which you can be roaring down the road at 100 miles per hour in your Lancia Dodo and still find Mercedeses and Beamers frantically flashing their headlights and whizzing past you as if you were standing still. Topped with greenery, the breaded, pounded, and perfectly fried cutlet is a minor masterpiece. And perhaps the name is not intended ironically—like the food you get everywhere else in Italy, the set meals at the Autogrill, a chain of highway hash houses, are much better than you’d ever imagine.