Good Food and Good Prices in Little Italy
"People are happy here," remarked one of my fellow diners the night of our visit to Café Gia Ristorante. At the table beside us, a couple made eyes at each other and at their pasta. ("It's lobster ravioli," the young woman gushed.) Nearby, two older gents in cardigans shared an animated conversation over the narrow space between their separate tables. Wine glasses clinked with toasts; plates emptied. If that isn't restaurant happiness, I don't know what is.
Some of the good vibe at Café Gia is due to kind servers who take time to explain or repeat specials and don't rush diners, even though the place is small. Some is due to the warm ochre walls and the reproduction posters advertising Italian liqueurs that hang on them (in a clever twist, one poster advertises café gia, little italy). But the bulk of the evening's pleasure comes from the hearty, Sicilian food that Café Gia offers without the fustiness (or prices) of most Little Italy restaurants.
The restaurant's menu is light on appetizers and salads compared to longer listings of pasta and entrees including classics such as veal marsala and chicken piccata, as well as all kinds of seafood preparations and a soup of the day. In the end, though, offering only a few starters is fine, considering how filling both they and what follows can be. Take the crostini di polenta ($9.95), a hefty appetizer of polenta (taking the place of the traditional crisp bread base) smothered in a chunky caponata and melted cheese, quite filling and more lasagna-like than crunchy crostini. Lighter and more palate-pleasing was the special tricolore salad ($9.95). The combination of arugula, radicchio, and Belgian endive scattered with creamy lumps of goat cheese made for not only a visually arresting mix, but a textural delight and flavorful as well. The grilled Caesar salad ($7.95) just seemed limp in comparison.
After witnessing the enthusiasm of the lobster ravioli eater, I began to second guess my order of ravioli positano ($16.95). I needn't have. The dish is a twist on traditional ravioli, with ricotta-stuffed rigatoni pasta with the ends crimped together to create little cheese-filled pockets taking the place of traditional ravioli, served with a deeply flavorful kitchen sink of a tomato sauce, dotted with green peas, mushrooms, basil, a little bit of sausage.
"Was the pasta homemade?" I asked a woman, who turned out to be the mother of proprietress Gia Blattermann-Fugate, after polishing off my bowl. She grabbed my hand, held it, and told me, no, it was not made in her kitchen (though nearly everything else is), but by a local lady. The local cook values the income and we like the pasta, she continued. I hope this relationship continues. The linguini vongele with white sauce ($15.95) was less impressive, despite its use of fresh clams. The white sauce, though filled with slices of fresh garlic, lacked real depth of flavor. I do hope Café Gia offers the ricotta and portabella gnocchi special ($20.95) again. Initially, a whole bowl of the light-as-air dumpling seemed incongruous, but it was no trouble to finish it.
The desserts are house made and just what you'd expect from an Italian restaurant. I preferred the cannoli ($4.50) with its fresh zip of lemon zest in the filling to the large moist square of tiramisu ($6.25) but each was well made.
Café Gia is that corner neighborhood joint we all wish was in our neighborhood. And I imagine that if you're lucky enough to live nearby, you end up there frequently, wine bottle in hand (the restaurant charges a $5 corkage fee), finding favorites among the cafe's many choices.