XO on Elm's New Menu

Manchester's XO on Elm debuts a new Latin-inspired menu, plus gluten-free and vegan dishes.

Sweet plantain croquets with Spanish queso de nata de Cantabria, a fresh milk cream.

In the restaurant business, trends come and go, the public is fickle, and good help is hard to find. It’s not easy to keep an eatery both popular and profitable. The owners and chefs need to have consistent quality and keep noisy Yelpers mollified, all while offering menu items that satisfy the growing list of allergies, health concerns and appetite ranges. You know — Jessica wants just a healthy salad and a tiny but interesting appetizer, and Uncle Bob wants a 42-ounce steak. Rosa Paolini, of XO on Elm in Manchester, has seen it all.

Rosa and her first husband Johnny opened Piccola Italia Ristorante in 2001, after learning the craft from Annibale Todesca of The Colosseum in Salem. Johnny worked in the kitchen and Rosa was in the front of the house making the restaurant’s signature tableside Caesar salads. They both honed their skills, and like many people in their situation, decided, “If we are going to work this hard, we might as well work for ourselves,” says Rosa.

Italian food turned out to be a good bet on Elm Street in Manchester. The restaurant thrived, Rosa had twins, and Johnny grew the staff. In an interesting what-goes-around-comes-round scenario, one of Johnny’s cooks, Felix Rodriguez, opened his own restaurant in Nashua in 2006, lifting almost the entire menu from Piccola, plus Piccola’s warm-hearted singing waiter. The nice guy Johnny is, he gifted Felix a large piece of restaurant equipment and wished him well.

A few years later, the couple decided to open another restaurant a few doors up from Piccola on Elm Street, calling it A Taste of Europe. Here, they decided to go on-trend with a Mediterranean menu, featuring interesting dishes from Greece and Italy, not just Italian-American dishes. Wine connoisseur Rufus Boyett offered suggestions and helped pair Italian wines with the appropriate dishes. It was probably the first place in Manchester to offer tapas-size dishes. And maybe it was bit too early for the times.

Meanwhile, Rosa and Johnny decided to call it quits. In time, she partnered with Matthew Mailloux, and eventually gave birth to her second set of twins, two boys this time. And Johnny, the nice guy he is, wished them well. Rosa decided to take over the lease of Taste of Europe.

Shrimp curry with mussels and calamari.

Rosa and Matt had a new vision for the space. In 2009, they hired designers Leslie Rifkin and Paul Mansback of Manchester to redesign the space. Gone were the autumn-hued wall murals of the Italian countryside and constricting layout. XO on Elm was born with a fresh, contemporary look, featuring walls of white faux brick, a bright, inviting bar with cozy table seating and clever light fixtures, while the dining room space was moved to the front, where diners could look out and passersby could look in. It was hip.

Rosa took the best from the last experiment and developed a new menu, featuring what had worked in the past. (Those stuffed dates seem to have survived every iteration.) She focused again on tapas, as dining trends were changing. People liked to be able to eat small or choose several dishes to share. She lost her startup chef, Kevin Donahue, who went on to cook for employees at Dyn from 2012 to 2015. (A Google search found him as a Realtor for Keller Williams at present.) Good help was always hard to find, and, at times, she was depending on talented relatives from Venezuela.

Rosa tried more new things — tableside cooking and tableside sangria. After all, she was the queen of tableside Caesar from days of yore. She brought in Chef Rosa D’Agostino, her aunt from Puglia, to help for a short time.

Tastes were changing, and Rosa also happened to be interested in healthy dining. In 2016, she added a raft of nutritious dishes with fresh ingredients, including colorful, natural dips for crudité. A plan to offer healthy but boozy shakes from a sidewalk bar did not get approved by the city. Eventually she found herself looking for a new chef yet again.

This past year, she went back to visit relatives in Venezuela and found Chef Leonardo. He was happy to come to America for the work and greater freedom. Currently, you’ll find many new items on the menu with a Latin influence. Chef Leonardo has worked carefully with Rosa and responded to her vision for a healthy menu, and yes, now one very compliant with a host of dietary restrictions that diners are requesting — no, are demanding.

It’s 2018, and the new XO on Elm features arepas, a type of sandwich that pre-Hispanic Venezuelans ate daily and still continue to relish. They are made with corn flour and served with fried plantains. Find tequeños, a baked cheese stick wrapped in dough; a slow-simmered farmers beef rib soup with yucca and plantains; a Peruvian shrimp bisque and a variety of paella, including one made with cauliflower rice for the carb-phobic. There are also gluten-free empanadas, and a delicious gnocchi made with plantains and hence gluten-free. The dining public demanded and Rosa responded ... with ceviche and an entire list of vegan offerings.

A look through the current menu is a step back through the greatest hits for XO on Elm and Rosa’s quick-footed response to keep the dance going. Sure, there is this new thing — Latin inspiration — but rest assured your favorite dishes — Chilean sea bass, braised beef ravioli, Madeira chicken with figs and braised lamb shanks — remain  along with tapas-style lamb lollipops and, of course, the stuffed figs. It’s a good thing — it’s Rosa’s history.

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