SALEM, N.H. — Customers shocked, owner and staff amused. Ever since being voted Salem’s “Best Italian Restaurant” last August by the readership of the Salem Observer, there has been a buzz surrounding Salem’s own Paradiso Italiano, and one need look no further than the crowded deli to see why. Everyone is talking about Naked Romans.

After their initial surprise customers can’t help but laugh at the outrageous name given to one of Paradiso’s signature sandwiches. So what is it and why is it “naked?”

Proprietor Kathy Feroce explains with a sly wink and a smile: “First, because it is fun to say, and second, because it is one of a series of pan-fried eggplant sandwiches that is served without sauce.” The idea for the sandwich came about shortly after Paradiso Italiano opened its doors in November, 2004.

“We fry eggplant every morning,” says Feroce, “and I began eating it for breakfast right out of the pan. Our classic eggplant parmesan was an instant sensation from Day One, and I couldn’t help thinking that something this tasty shouldn’t hide beneath a layer of sauce, even sauce as good as ours.” After collaborating with her staff for sandwich ideas she came up with the recipe: fresh, thinly sliced, pan-fried eggplant topped with fresh mozzarella slices, juicy tomatoes, and fresh basil leaves, all served on a 10-inch piece of fresh-baked Italian bread from legendary Tripoli’s Bakery of Lawrence, MA.

“At first I didn’t even have it on the menu. When one of my regular customers said he wanted something different I suggested the Naked Roman. That was two years ago and I don’t think he has ever ordered anything else. When other patrons saw the sandwich they began asking about it and it quickly became a cult favorite. My staff and I would joke with folks that they had to whisper their order so that no one else could hear.”

But others did hear and the demand became so great that they had to add it to the menu. Not to be outdone, Feroce’s best friend, Julie Hayes, came up with the second in the Naked Series, the “Venus Di Milo.” This recipe calls for fried eggplant smothered with roasted red peppers and topped with melted provolone cheese and served on Italian bread.

Next in the lineup is the “Toga,” which is a wrap (no extra charge for the bad humor). This recipe offers guests their choice of wrap bread (whole wheat, tomato, or spinach) topped with hummus tahini, Romaine lettuce, eggplant, roasted red peppers, hot banana peppers, and feta cheese. The fourth sandwich is the “Naked Terrenzio,” which is a variation of the Naked Roman that includes a layer of thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma and was created by and named for another loyal customer.

With all the uproar over the Naked Series, has classic eggplant parm become passe? “Hardly! The demand for our eggplant parm is huge and I can’t count the number of times customers said it was the best they ever had.” Fans of her eggplant parm include Billy Costa of TV Diner fame who sampled the dish at a recent charitable event held at the Rockingham Mall in Salem. Costa was KISS108’s disc jockey for the occasion and enthusiastically told the entire mall audience that Paradiso’s eggplant was the best he ever had and awarded it The Platinum Plate.

So what else can people who hunger for authentic and original Italian food expect from this family kitchen? Feroce just smiles and says “At Paradiso we say that food is love. Come on in and see why.”

To learn more about Paradiso Italiano, please call 603.893.2496, send an email to info@paradisoitaliano(.com) or visit their website at .

[tags]Naked Romans Sandwich, Paradiso Italiano, Kathy Feroce, Salem restaurants[/tags]