I can be unreasonably sentimental about certain things. The Lower East Side and El Barrio, for instance (i.e. the real New York). The NYC subway (even when its latest track record doesn’t warrant it). Hole-in-the walls.
Gaia is another prized possession in this category, a small Italian cafe in the Lower East Side named after the force behind it, the matriarch, the WOMAN. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the mother goddess who presides over the earth. Similarly, Gaia Bagnasco presides over this near-hidden cafe nestled on the corner of Norfolk and East Houston Street.
As equal parts owner, head chef, and Italian maestress, she demonstrates meticulous control over every detail of the cafe. Prices are affordable, in part because she only has two kitchen staff members, but mostly because it’s written into the cafe’s mores: food should not be expensive. A sumptuous panini ranges from $5-$10; a small illy coffee is just $1.00. All this, despite being in a neighborhood where pencil towers are rising faster than new graffiti to cover it.
I discovered Gaia 5 years ago when I lived in Alphabet City. The place is easy to miss in its basement-level location. But one winter day on my morning commute, I happened to turn my head and see the OPEN sign flip. I descended down the stairs, eager to gain entrance into what seemed like a secret underground club. Immediately, the warm, welcoming waft of illy Italian coffee greeted my senses. Alas, there was a credit card minimum and I had no cash! As I began to leave, Gaia insisted I take my coffee & croissant completely gratis; I refused, but she persisted. Without knowing who I was or if I would ever patronize her business again, she trusted that I would be back.
And indeed – the croissant was the best I ever had. Over the weeks, months, and years, Gaia has become my go-to for simple, no-frills cooking. What it lacks in propriety and small talk, it surpasses in value and authenticity. Fresh is the theme: from the perfectly flaky Nutella croissants, to the bread baked each morning (oh that bread!), to the panini that she executes using the finest Italian-imported cured meat and cheeses.
Gaia’s perspective is fresh in abundance too. One day, I worked from home and ordered lunch to-go. She remarked,
“You Americans. No wonder you are all fat and unhappy. Always on the go, never stopping to just eat and enjoy.”
The menu states that “service is not a priority”, and that is sometimes the case – but thisundersells its authenticity. You may be promptly rushed out at 7 pm on weekday evenings and chided for ingredient substitutions. But so long as you come with a basic respect for the space & food that Mother Earth provides, you’ll receive more unsolicited acts of kindness than you probably deserve. Kind of like eating in your mother’s kitchen.
Gaia’s best hits include her fresh salads, spinach & ricotta tegamini, gnocchi, ravioli, black pepper linguini, and paninis; my absolute favorite is the fresh-baked focaccia bread that comes with every dish, often on crumpled foil, along with plastic serving spoons. Wine is served BYOB-style in cheap plastic red water tumblers. A bit reminiscent of a hostel cafe, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a better backdrop in NYC.
I love Gaia for its fresh ingredients and heart-nourishing food. It is the remnant of a NYC that is quickly becoming a relic of the past: affordable, raw, you-get-what-you-ask-for candor. Dine here as you would like any respectful guest invited to a home-cooked meal; drop the ego, be hungry for community. You won’t get special treatment. But you will absolutely get what you pay for: a meal with real food.