Written By Nathan Leslie

It is easy to forget the humble beginnings of Paradiso Restaurant. In fact, the establishment has become such a fixture of Westminster dining that it is a bit of a surprise that it began just 14 years ago in a small Locust Lane storefront.

Since 1998 co-owners Salvatore and June Romeo have offered fine Italian cuisine from their new location in the Old Sherwood Distillery. “We needed a larger location. The customer base expanded by one hundred percent,” June Romeo said.

Although they still operate the old Locust Lane site (it is now Paradiso Pizzeria), Salvatore and June now focus on offering some of Westminster’s most inspired cuisine in the newer location. Salvatore Romeo, who also doubles as the chef of Paradiso, creates dishes that represent the entire Italian peninsula. Romeo uses a medley of family recipes and imagination, and he particularly loves to create new dishes.

“I love to cook. I have a passion for it,” said Salvatore, who came to The United States from Naples at the age of 16. Romeo initially practiced his craft in Baltimore, but moved to Westminster when he and June married. June is a longtime Westminster resident who was graduated from Westminster High School in 1980. She gave birth to their daughter in 1998, the same year that the renovated Paradiso opened.

The most consistently enjoyed dishes at Paradiso tend to be rockfish and veal shank, but “the daily specials are usually the most popular,” said June . “Over the years, people have come to associate Paradiso with the daily specials.”

Paradiso’s menu presents a wide array of dishes, from pasta and chicken to steaks and veal, and especially seafood. Their regular seafood dishes include many shrimp dishes, jumbo lump crab meat with chopped roma tomatoes and spinach in a garlic cream sauce, and mussels sautŽed with roma tomatoes, fresh basil, and garlic with a hint of balsamic vinegar. “I try to use the freshest and finest ingredients I can get each week,” Salvatore said.

One of the obvious appeals of Paradiso is that the restaurant provides high-quality dining for casual dining prices. Almost every dish on the menu falls within the $10.50- $20 range, including the char grilled 14 ounce New York Strip topped with spinach in wine sauce. Appetizers at Paradiso include various cheeses, calamari, and clams topped with Italian bacon, mozzarella, and bread crumbs. Patrons can even sample a cup of Italian wedding soup, which includes spinach, meatballs, and pastina noodles.

“Paradiso has good food that the customer can’t find anywhere else, particularly in Carroll County,” said June. According to June, Paradiso gives the Westminster diner “Good service, and a comfortable, warm, friendly atmosphere.”

While Salvatore handles the food, June manages the daily operation of the restaurant. She can often be found standing next to the striking painting of Mt. Vesuvius in the lobby, greeting customers. June also was the vision behind the interior design of the restaurant. “For two years I carried swatches with me everywhere I went,” June said.

Upstairs, a rustic green dominates the dŽcor of the dining room, accented with a handsome wood mantle and wine-colored table cloths. The booths are upholstered in a decorative floral pattern, and a small green lamp and a bottle of olive oil tastefully await on each table.

Plants ring the restaurant and the window sills are lined with ivy and elegant white lights. Soft Italian music wafts into Paradiso via satellite radio.

The bar on the ground floor is lively, immersing patrons in warm yellows and burnished wood. You will often find June or Salvatore chatting with diners, some of whom have journeyed to Westminster from Baltimore City or County, Frederick, or Pennsylvania. Paradiso exudes a feeling of community and family. Patio dining is available during the spring, summer, and early autumn, and the Romeos often rent out an enclosed banquet room that can seat up to 50 diners.

The wait staff at Paradiso is friendly and quick to smile, and Paradiso still employs many of the kitchen staff from the original restaurant, a low turnover rarely seen in restaurants. When the Romeos moved to the new location they beefed up the menu and expanded the staff by 50 percent.

The Romeos are clearly basking in the glow of the success that has graced Paradiso over the past few years. They have earned the right: it took two years to complete the renovation of the “Glass House” building of the distillery, a structure that initially housed the mechanism for recovering cattle feed from the mash used in whiskey production.

“I thought Salvatore was a little crazy when he told me we were buying this place,” June said. “I couldn’t see it until we met with the architect and I saw it on paper. Then I started thinking, maybe he’s only half crazy.” Lou Battistone, the architect the Romeos hired for the renovation of the distillery, specializes in converting old buildings into restaurants.

However, by using smart growth funds from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and a loan from Union National Bank in Westminster, the Romeos were able to afford the relocation and extensive renovation.

Ultimately, establishing the new Paradiso location was a labor of love. “We did a lot of the physical work,” Salvatore said. “It’s like a baby to us.”

Penne al Pomodoro
1 Pound penne pasta
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup basil leaves
1/2 cup parsley leaves
2 teaspoons coarsely chopped thyme
1 1/2 pounds cherry tomatoes, halved, seeded and quartered
1/3 cup Calamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1 cup coarsely grated Tuscan Pecorino cheese (3 ounces)
Freshly ground pepper

Cook the penne in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente.
Drain the penne and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Let cool to
room temperature. Meanwhile, in a blender, puree the basil, parsley,
garlic, thyme with the remaining 1/2 cup of olive oil. Scrape into a
bowl and season with salt. In a large bowl, toss the penne with the
herb puree, tomatoes, and olives, and let stand at room temperature
for at least 10 minutes to develop flavor. Just before serving, add the
Pecorino, season with pepper and toss well. Serves four.

Gamberi Risotto Con Spinaci

This risotto has the classic creamy yet al dente texture and features a
combination of Parmesan cheese and seafood. Contrary to popular belief,
Italians do partner cheese with seafood in some dishes: we recommend
it here without reservation.
6 cups (about) chicken broth
1 pound uncooked large shrimp, peeled, deveined
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cups aborio rice or medium-grain white rice
(about 9 1/2 ounces)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 6-ounce package baby spinach leaves
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
Additional grated Parmesan cheese

Bring 6 cups broth to simmer in medium saucepan. Add shrimp. Turn
off heat, cover, and let stand until shrimp are just opaque in center,
about 3 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer shrimp to small bowl;
cover with foil to keep warm. Cover broth to keep warm.
Heat oil in large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add chopped
onion and sautŽ until tender, about 5 minutes. Add minced garlic and
stir 1 minute. Add rice and stir until edge of rice is translucent but
center is still opaque, about 2 minutes. Add wine and cook until wine
is absorbed, stirring occasionally, about 2 minutes. Add 3/4 cup chicken
broth. Simmer until almost all broth is absorbed, stirring often, about
2 minutes. Continue to add broth, 3/4 cup at a time, until rice is just
tender and mixture is creamy, stirring often and allowing almost all
broth to be absorbed after each addition, about 25 minutes total.
During last 5 minutes, add spinach in 4 batches, stirring and allowing
spinach to wilt after each addition. Mix in shrimp, 1/2 cup Parmesan
cheese, and basil. Season risotto to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon
risotto into shallow bowls and serve, passing additional cheese
separately. Serves six.