For Gaia Bagnasacco, the force behind the new Gaia Italian Café on East Houston Street, running her restaurant is more than a business; it’s personal.
Being a Gaia’s customer is a bit of a commitment: the chef knows your name, what you like and what you ate last time you came in, which was probably yesterday. If the food you order takes a little while to prepare, she’ll plop down a little dish of something you didn’t order to tide you over.
She’ll point out the businessman in the corner with his laptop, and say she’s proud to provide him office space and WiFi to do his work. Meanwhile, the guy at the next table is pretty likely to survey your food and offer that he really likes that particular dish, and by the way, be sure to try the homemade cookies or the brioche with Nutella for dessert. He knows what he’s talking about, because he probably works across the street or lives around the corner, or both, and he eats there a lot.
Since opening Feb. 1, Gaia’s Café has become home base for a lot of its neighbors, and its proprietor couldn’t be happier about that.
“People keep coming, I have a lot of regulars, some daily customers, and it’s nice because it’s like having more family,” said Bagnasacco, 41, who left her own family in Italy three years ago to pursue her American dream. “This neighborhood is a kind of family; it reminds me of Italy.”
She grew up in Milan and spent the last 14 years in Tuscany, working as a graphic designer and fantasizing about cooking for New Yorkers.
“I don’t have any degrees, I just have a passion,” she says. She learned to cook from her grandfather, who cooked in the army “until he got too good,” and her mother, who runs a small inn in Tuscany.
The menu at Gaia reflects both sophisticated urban Milanese cuisine and simpler Tuscan fare, with a dash of Sardinia thrown in, courtesy of one of the staffers who’s a native there. Paninis, which cost $5, feature bread made in-house and cured meats and cheeses flown in from Bagnasacco’s home country once a week, which are also available by the pound for take-home.
Hot dishes called tegamini (named for the deep round pan they are baked in) include spinach and ricotta gnocchi and polenta with gorgonzola and sell for $7. In advance of summer weather, Bagnasacco plans to expand her offerings of cold salads and pastas, like artichoke hearts with shrimp and Italian couscous with tuna, calamari and sun-dried tomatoes.
She serves Illy coffee, Italian sodas and delicious bottled juices, which she also imports. Part of her mission at the café, she says, is “teaching people to eat the way we eat in Italy” – with few preservatives and artificial additives.
“If you have good ingredients and you know how to put them together, you don’t need a lot,” she says. “But if you keep eating things in cans, and processed food, that’s what kills your body.”
In three short months, a lot of customers have come to depend on her for sustenance. The Tuesday after Easter, one regular came in for lunch and chided the chef gently for abandoning him the previous day.
“You were closed yesterday! What’s up with that? You broke my heart; you’ve got to warn me next time,” he said.
Bagnasacco beams at this; after living alone in her adopted city for two years, she’s finally at home.
“What I’ve missed is friendship, and now that I have this restaurant, I don’t have that feeling anymore.”
Gaia Italian Café is located at 251 E. Houston St., between Norfolk and Suffolk streets. It is open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday.