It's a rare visitor to Italy who isn't taken by the quality and freshness of its food—not only in the finer restaurants, but in cafés and sandwich shops and roadside snack stands. How, a traveler wonders, is every bite here so superior?
To paraphrase No. 42: It's the ingredients, stupid.
At its finest, Italian fare is blessedly uncomplicated; while untold skill goes into the production of mozzarella cheese, say, or prosciutto di Parma, those components are allowed to shine through, unencumbered by competing flavors.
Such is the case at Ballaró Caffé Prosciutteria, a warm, light-filled cafe in the East Village that, except for the conspicuous absence of a wine list, would not be out of place on the streets of Rome. La Gazzetta dello Sport and Il Corriere Della Sera are stacked along with the Times; the espresso machine rarely lies quiet for more than a moment. Older gentlemen linger along the lengthy bar, espresso in hand. And the crostini, panini, and small plates evidence an obvious attention to quality and detail, particularly in the sourcing of ingredients.
While you can craft your own sandwich from Ballaró's selection of cured meats and fresh and aged cheeses, the listed panini are so well-balanced that there's little reason to stray from the menu.
I read the caciocavallo, mozzarella, and truffle oil panino ($8) as an unlikely pairing, thinking the two mellow cheeses might be overwhelmed. But the oil was brushed on judiciously, a subtle highlight to the milky mozzarella and slightly aged caciocavallo.
A sandwich of anchovies, Swiss, and tomato ($8) wasn't the salty mouthful an American might expect, but bright with plump marinated alici and a drizzle of sharp olive oil.
Or skip the sandwich altogether and opt for a naked lunch—choose of one ($4), three ($9), or five ($15) selections from a menu of vegetables, cheeses, and afetati (amusingly, if unfairly, called "cold cuts"). Above are a fist-sized lump of oozing burrata, tangle of nutty prosciutto di Parma, and pile of grilled melanzane, served with a basket of fresh (if typically neutral) Italian bread. If there's another place in Manhattan to score this portion of fresh, almost grassy burrata for a measly $4, please point me to it.
Stop in for a snack, stay for an espresso; Ballaró earns this Italophile's seal of approval. It's not quite the downtown Salumeria Rosi. But it's not too far off.
Ballaró Caffé Prosciutteria
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