Rose-Ellen Padavano, chef at Padavano’s Place and Rosalina’s Kitchen, thinks she may be the only guest who ever got bleeped on “Phantom Gourmet.” That may or may not be true. What feels true after meeting Rose-Ellen is no one who knows her would likely be the least bit surprised to hear she dropped an f-bomb in the kitchen with the cameras rolling. Probably more ended up on the cutting room floor. Who knows? You get the sense either way Rose-Ellen isn’t hiding who she is from anyone. “In the kitchen I am nuts,” she laughs. “I think most chefs are. You have to be nuts as a chef-owner.”
Listening to Rose-Ellen and digging into her restaurants’ generous and beloved plates of from-scratch Italian home-style food, you think, “This is someone who has never lacked confidence.” Which is why hearing her say these words are so surprising: “I can’t do this. I just can’t.”
That’s what Rose-Ellen thought in 2010 before she opened Rosalina’s Kitchen on Hamilton Street. Today, the restaurant is renowned for its ravioli, Ricotta Puffs, 4-Parm Avalanche, and a tiny dinner-only dining room that’s packed four nights a week. In 2014, Rose-Ellen and her partner Angela opened a sister restaurant, Padavano’s Place, and in 2015 comes the opening of a seafood shanty, Somethin’ Catchy Seafood Shanty. People have noticed: She recently earned best chef honors from Worcester Living and runner-up finish in Worcester Magazine. But back in 2010 before that all started?
“I had been in the biotech industry. I was at the top of my career. But I was not happy to be there. So I left, but I wasn’t sure which direction I was going in. I started doing a little catering. Then I saw this cute little restaurant for sale in Grafton Hill and a friend of mine told me I had to inquire about it.”
So, she finally realized her dream of being a chef?
“No. No. NO!” she laughs. “Are you crazy?”
“You weren’t even a very good cook!” her partner Angela screams from back of Padavano’s.
“No shit,” she yells back (we understand, Phantom). “I loved food but I totally sucked at cooking.” Not that she hadn’t tried to cook before Rosalina’s. She just didn’t do it well, but free from her corporate life, she developed techniques and fundamentals to match her palate. “Everything I have learned – except my partner’s mom’s meatballs – I have taught myself as an adult with cookbooks, lots of Internet, trying things out in the kitchen.” Legions of fans are glad she did.
So, how did she end up making the jump into restaurants? “I always had big parties at home. We were constantly entertaining. 50 to 60 people for turkey dinner and the next day I’d say, ‘We are going to do brunch at 11. Leftover turkey tetrazzini for breakfast.’ And the next thing you know the turkey is flying around. I just loved it.” Soon, the party people started asking Rose-Ellen to cook for them and she started catering out of the house. That’s when a friend told her to check out the restaurant that became Rosalina’s.
Despite having a quick following, for the first six months, Rose-Ellen still lacked her signature confidence: “I drove up with a knot in my stomach. I was scared. I never even worked in a restaurant. Not just the cooking. I didn’t know how to write a guest check. My partner is a civil engineer by trade. She can build you a bridge, but we needed a waitress from the previous restaurant to teach us how to write checks and use the cash register. You don’t use those in biotech. We had to learn the chef and the business side together.”
And they did it, maybe because they did not know any better – a little naiveté and nerves never hurt if it keeps you thinking anything is possible. Neither does success. As a result, even with Rosalina’s open only for dinner four days a week, Rose-Ellen was putting in 14 to 16 hour days. Then, she would study in bed before passing out exhausted – only to wake up in the middle of the night with ideas to write them down. The consequences went beyond sleep deprivation.
“Within a couple of years I knew Rosalina’s was always going to be successful. It was growing exponentially,” she recalls. “We were turning away so many people all the time. We have sixty seats and we’re open for four hours. We were watching customers and money going out the door. So we said, ‘What are we doing? Let’s try and plan something else.’”
She and Angela spent eighteen months looking at spaces and locations before stumbling on what became Padavano’s Place on Shrewsbury Street, which in many ways seems the polar opposite of Rosalina’s. If the first is a homey, humble, BYOB place that feels like walking into a boisterous aunt’s house, the latter something different – not a Rosalina’s II but more refined with a full bar and live entertainment though very much the same food to try and capture a piece of the booming Shrewsbury Street scene. “And we’ve caught on,” she says, especially as Rosalina’s shut-outs found just what they were looking for and more at Padavano’s Place.
That said Padavano’s has become the place where Rose-Ellen can play in the kitchen. She’s been sautéing and experimenting with stuffed breads and soups and strews for the season. The space also serves as the test kitchen for her ravioli specials in honor of Padavano’s one-year anniversary like pumpkin ravioli with a brown sugar cinnamon cream sauce in fall or “turkey dinner” ravioli for November or “beef stew” ravioli for winter. She entered Worcester’s Best Chef contest with grape-leaf ravioli she concocted at Padavano’s, and she’s thinking about ingredients like lobster, shrimp, crab, and mushroom.
She also concocted her third restaurant in the Padavano’s kitchen, playing with chowders and batters for the seafood shanty, Something Catchy. “No one would expect us to open a fish place, but it makes sense to have one and no one else is doing it so why not us? I had a goal to open three restaurants by the time I was 40 [she’s 39 now]. I asked, ‘What does Worcester need?’ A seafood shanty! It’s a no brainer and fun.”
In the end, though Rose-Ellen likes being part of the crowd too. She and Angela actively support local businesses and eat out every Tuesday. “I like the speed and the pressure. I love the craziness of the kitchen,” she says. “But I like visiting with people. The most fun is the socializing. I like to party with people. The most gratifying part is people like what I am doing. Rosalina’s is a destination because there is nothing else there. Padavano’s success is even sweeter, because people chose to come to us from all the great places here. I love to cook but coming out and seeing everyone love it? That’s why I act like a maniac every day.”