251 East Houston St, New York NY 10002 (between Norfolk & Suffolk Streets; map); 646-350-3977; gaiaitaliancafe.com
Veggie Options: 3 panini, 4 entrées, 1 salad, antipasto
Cost: Panini $5, entrées $5-7, salads $7
Gaia Café is arguably one of the most classically Italian experiences I've discovered in New York. When you leave and step back out onto Houston Street, it's almost jarring to realize that you've been in the Lower East Side all along. This relatively new place is small, cozy, and distinctly European; owner Gaia Bagnasacco has certainly succeeded in transporting a tiny piece of Italy to downtown New York City.
The vibe is definitely more parts café than restaurant—clear glass tables have inset shelves stocked with magazines, and you get the feeling that you're meant to sit at your laptop sipping Illy-brand coffee all day. But despite the lack of tablecloths, we were here for the food, and you should be too. The ingredients are fresh and of a high quality, and the dishes themselves surpass your preconceptions of Italian food. This is Italian Italian food.
The panini ($5) are some of their most popular menu items, and it's no surprise. Tasty, simple ingredients are layered inside an incredible crisp, fresh bread that's baked in-house. We decided to try the Sano panino with pesto, frittata, parmesan, tomato, and arugula. The pesto was scattered in small blobs here and there, which was unfortunate because it was one of the best pestos I've ever had. If there were less emphasis on the eggy frittata and more pesto, this sandwich would be unstoppable.
For the official record, real Italian panini aren't always pressed on a grill, so don't be surprised that your sandwich bears no resemblance to a grilled cheese. The Bubi panini (tomato, basil, buffalo mozzarella), which I had initially dismissed as too boring is definitely next on my list—now that I have an idea of the quality of cheeses here. The buffalo mozzarella in particular is imported from Italy every Thursday night. Then there's the Siciliano, with eggplant, tomatoes, parsley, caciotta cheese and basil. We were warned that some people are off-put by the use of raw eggplant but that did not stop us from adding it to our to-try list.
Next we took a stab at the white lasagna with buffalo ricotta and pesto sauce ($7), which is really a showstopper. It was exciting enough that a vegetarian lasagna was on the menu, but once we got our hands on it, every bite was heavenly. The globs of uncommonly delicious, sweet ricotta are so good that you almost forget to notice how tender and perfect the noodles are.
A much more colorful dish was the spinach and ricotta gnocchi ($7, pictured at top) which, unlike your typical gnocchi, are utterly potato-less. These little spinach-balls are held together with a bit of ricotta and arrive swimming in tomato sauce. But for how bright and colorful the dish is, it didn't quite taste as flavorful as it looked. That is, the spinach tastes of fresh spinach, and the tomato sauce tastes like tomatoes, but there is a lack of richness and spice to bring it all together and give it depth and flavor.
With jars of cookies lining the counter, we simply could not pass on dessert. The amaretto cookie ($0.50) had a gnarled, crunchy exterior and a soft, slightly chewy interior, with just the right amount of sweet almond flavor.
They were out of their popular nutella-filled croissants that day, so we settled for a marmalade croissant ($2). The pastry itself was denser and chewier than its French counterpart and not quite as flaky, but the perfectly tart marmalade filling brought it all together.
Gaia Café is really about the sum of its parts: the fresh ingredients, the food made with care, the super-reasonable prices. And then of course there's the owner, Gaia, herself, who really puts her love of Italy into every dish that she makes and serves you. As she took my panini plate away I said that it had been very good, and she replied with only a chuckle and a knowing smile. She knows that she's serving something truly special. If Gaia Café were to become slightly more restaurant than café, and had more New York friendly hours (it closes at 7pm on weeknights!), I could easily see it garnering the attention and popularity that the food most certainly deserves.