The rustic Mediterranean fare at 40 Paper in Camden will make even the most jaded diner happy. There are few things more universally comforting than great pasta.
When chef and restaurateur Josh Hixson is questioned about what exactly makes 40 Paper’s pasta so superb, his response is straightforward. “Our pasta is great because we really care to go out of our way to make it great. It is made in very small batches, rolled, filled, and cut by hand. Each dish is created to order, with sauces and flavors built in the pan, one step at a time. We believe that this keeps our flavors bright and complex, and allows each of the ingredients to truly stand out.”
Hixson’s philosophy is vividly realized in each bite I take of his toothsome agnolotti, which is filled with bright, citrusy goat cheese and served in an earthy mushroom brodo. The addition of crunchy rainbow chard and locally foraged nebrodini mushrooms showcases the dish’s many layers of harmonious flavor.
Yet the 40 Paper experience goes far beyond the superlative pasta, of course. Though the space is fairly large and open, the atmosphere is warm and inviting. Eclectic wallpaper and playful lightingalmost every fixture was created by Hixson utilizing antique glass and old spice jarsaccentuate the hundred-year-old, exposed-brick walls. The original support beams, painted stark white when Hixson and his crew began the renovation, were sandblasted to bring back as much of their original character as possible.
“We wanted the main focus to be the bar,” Hixson explains. “Camden was in dire need of a well-designed bar for a more adult crowd. We put a lot of thought into the way the room feels.”
After his time spent training with notable chefs such as Barbuto’s Jonathan Waxman, and Melissa Kelly of Primo, Hixson has refined his style to focus on simple, rustic Mediterranean fare, such as garlicky grilled flatbread pizzas that act as a conduit for whatever ingredients happen to inspire him at the moment. Hixson’s wife, Tara Barker, is the restaurant’s pastry chef. 40 Paper’s desserts are all gluten-free due to Barker’s own experiences with celiac disease and her desire to accommodate those on gluten-free diets. The restaurant even has a separate dedicated kitchen to prepare its fresh gluten-free focaccia and pasta dough, which are available as a substitute in any of their entrees.
On my maiden visit, I intend to cover all of the bases. Bar manager Wind Tracy prides himself on the restaurant’s cocktail program, devising a menu divided into two categories: “vintage cocktails with a signature twist” and “creative modern cocktails you probably won’t find anywhere but here.” My dining companion and I begin with the Pesca, a refreshing and mildly fruity concoction made of bourbon, basil, lemon, and peach-infused bitters. Our second beverage, called A Stitch of Thyme, is a tart, thought-provoking blend of vodka, Pimm’s, Amaro Montenegro, lemon juice, and the herb after which it’s named. I like that neither drink is aggressively sweet.
Service is casual but well informed. Hixson insists that his staff regularly sample the menu so they can describe the experience to customers. “We want to not only encourage our staff to eat here, but we want them to love it here,” he says. “It’s very common to see waitstaff here on their night off sitting at the bar, crouched over a bowl of carbonara and drinking the newest beer from Marshall Wharf. We also really want them to know the food.”
Warm bread from the Atlantic Baking Company, a local outfit, arrives with a slathering of silky herb butter. An outrageously decadent and rich serving of stuffed baby artichokes, filled with piquant goat cheese and topped with crunchy pancetta “bits,” prompt me to order up a bottle of bitingly cold Arneis, a type of white wine that originated in Piedmont, Italy. The bright acidity and flavors of white peach, flowers, and lychee are an ideal foil to the artichokes and our second appetizertender calamari stuffed with spicy chorizo and served over smoky grilled hearts of romaine. Although I generally disdain peas, in this case their addition brings all of the flavors together.
As I focus on the wine, my companion begins working her way through the evening’s beer selection. The restaurant has six taps that are in almost constant rotation, with an emphasis on hard-to-find offerings and Maine beers from the likes of Allagash, Maine Beer Company, OxBow, and local favorite Marshall Wharf. Both the wine and the beer perform admirably alongside the roasted-apple flatbread topped with salami, milky ricotta salata, and liberal amounts of garlic.
As mentioned, the pasta at 40 Paper is a true labor of loveevery dish is handmade and cooked to order. Sunday evening comfort food at its best, the capellini is served in a rich cream sauce with prosciutto, braised fennel, with a dash of fennel pollen to impart an aromatic quality to the dish. Coupled with the agnolotti, I find myself slipping into a pasta-induced trance that is part ecstasy and part sublime satiation.
To bridge the gap between dessert (and give our stomachs time to settle), we select a few drinks from the “vintage” cocktail list, my personal favorite being the Torontoa libation made from rye whiskey, orange bitters, flamed orange peel, and Fernet-Branca to aid digestion.
As cocktail time reverts to beer drinking, we are ready to sample Barker’s desserts. Maple polenta cake with whipped mascarpone and bacon pecan brittle provides an enjoyable textural interplay. While the chocolate olive oil soufflés with milk chocolate mousse and bitter chocolate caramel look dense, they turn out to be delicate and ethereal.
Hixson’s tendency to be in constant motion has led him to begin hosting a series of dining events at a secret location that is disclosed only within the week of the dinner. One such party involved setting up a remote bar, kitchen, and dance floor in an abandoned theater. The dining series is yet another way in which 40 Paper is providing customers with a unique, unforgettable experience.
A restaurant that produces brilliant fresh pastas and outstanding grilled pizza is a welcome addition to any community, and Josh Hixson and his crew will continue to pack in 40 Paper with both happy locals and satisfied tourists for a very long time.
40 Washington St. | Camden | 207.230.0111