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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Downtown, it's all in the restaurant family

September 03. 2014 7:37PM

The early 2000s brought unmitigated success to John and Rosa Paolini, at least from a business perspective.

In 2001, the couple borrowed $250,000 from family and opened what every great American city needs — a good downtown Italian restaurant.

Manchester residents embraced Piccola Italia Ristorante. We reveled in the murals of Italy, food prepared by a genuine Italian-American from Boston, and the long waits to get a seat.

Within two years, the Paolinis had paid off their debts and had stashed $200,000 in the bank.

It came at a price. The couple worked incredibly long hours. They barely saw their twin daughters, who were not even 2 when the restaurant opened. And they fought.

Success at the family business bred the failure of a family, and the couple of 10 years divorced in 2008.

Six years later, the Paolini family tree has grown to be more like the holly bushes in my backyard, which are so entwined you can’t distinguish one from the other:

• John now owns his restaurant outright, and daughters Fabiana and Lorena are starting high school.

• The manager of Piccola, Manchester native Matt Mailloux, has fathered Rosa’s twin sons, who turn 4 in November.

• Rosa and Matt co-own XO on Elm Restaurant, just a half-block down from Piccola.

Their story is one of love that splintered, broke away and then rejoined.

“Who the heck isn’t hurt,” John said earlier this summer. “Divorce is an awful thing. Kids get affected by it, but you have to make the best of a bad thing.”

“I love him,” Rosa said as she shot a glance at her ex-husband across the table. “It doesn’t mean I’m in love with him. I won’t sleep with him.”

To cement this family even further, John is a godfather to one of Matt and Rosa’s twins and an on-call babysitter.

And Matt manages the front of Piccola, allowing John to devote his attention to executive chef duties.

“I sent him to Johnny,” Rosa quipped.

“I love him,” Matt said about John. “We love each other. I’ve got his back, he’s got mine. He’s one of my best friends in the world.”

Last month, Rosa and Matt sat down with John and his girlfriend of five years, Amy Norcia, for an hour-long interview for two reasons. One is to celebrate the pending 13th anniversary of Piccola, which is going through a $30,000 interior remodeling this summer.

The other reason is to dispel what they say are nasty rumors about the family.

I’ve certainly heard the rumor over the years — that Rosa and Matt opened XO in 2009 to flaunt their relationship, and the X in the title was a nasty dig at John.

Not true, Rosa said.

“A lot of people speculate. A lot of evil tongues,” Rosa said. “They want drama, they want destruction.” The X and O mean what they normally mean — hugs and kisses, Rosa said.

She said the breakup was not bitter. John got the restaurant, Rosa got the house. And the two have joint custody of their daughters.

John attributed the divorce to the stress of opening Piccola Italia and the consistent 16-hour days.

“I went through a stage when I was a monster,” John said. “We started thinking differently. When you do that, you walk down different roads.”

Matt worked as a waiter at the Taste of Europe, which Rosa and John opened in 2004 in space now occupied by XO. Rosa said Matt became her emotional protector as the marriage foundered. After the divorce, they opened XO; kisses and hugs soon followed.

“You spend so much time with somebody, you have common interests. It grows from there,” Matt said.

Matt said he and John share father responsibilities for the daughters and the twins, Trystan and Ethan.

Financially, XO’s payments are current on a controversial $35,000 loan it received from the city in June. Both restaurants bring in $1.5 million a year in sales, Matt said.

The Paolini divorce shocked many. Rosa said she is the first and only person in her family to divorce.

John, who sent his daughters to Catholic school until they started high school this week, said he is a Catholic who used to go to church. Rosa and Matt are born-again Christians.

So what to make of this?

Most everyone knows families that have broken up and remain close. We also know families that have stayed together and can’t stand each other. And this summer’s recurring drama has been the story of the Demoulas cousins, family members who breed hate so corrosive that it nearly destroyed a supermarket empire.

“That looks like a family that can’t stand each other. That won’t happen here,” John said. “What’s the bottom line? If you have family, you have everything.”

Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and He can be reached at

Mark Hayward's City Matters Food Manchester

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