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.
I never knew how tough it could be to say goodbye to a business. My boss closed a restaurant in Harlem on Wednesday. Hoards of people came to pay their respects with a glass (or two or three) of wine, toasting to the restaurant’s 4.5 year run. It was a sad occasion, though by the number of people who came out (standing room only) you wouldn’t have guessed the economy was so bad. If only everyday were closing day…
All irony aside, the outpouring of support was incredible. After we officially announced the close through Twitter, tweet after tweet expressed dismay. Retweets, blog posts, and articles were written. My heart was warmed after reading about how many lives were affected by this cozy wine bar on the corner of 21st and Frederick Douglass. For many, this was their Cheers. One saddened customer wrote,
“Today is a sad day all around. It’s raining and my favorite neighborhood bar is closing. I go to Nectar because it’s my Cheers. Yes, sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name…There are so many things I love about Nectar, but most importantly I’ll miss seeing my friends and making new friends over a glass of Seven Sisters.”
To fully disclose my affiliation, I work for Jai Jai Greenfield, the former Wall Street trader-turned wine entrepreneur, owner of Harlem Vintage and now-closed Nectar Wine Bar NYC, as her digital assistant of sorts. It was amazing to see her strength during this difficult time, and my respect for her as both a businesswoman and individual has only grown. She is a strong supporter of the Harlem community and always dedicates time and money to philanthropic causes. Now that Nectar is closed, all efforts will be channeled to Harlem Vintage but you can be sure that Jai Jai will still make her presence known in the community.
We drafted this letter explaining the close to customers:
After the tears are wiped, let’s put our money where our mouths are. In her farewell toast, Jai Jai emphasized the importance of supporting small businesses.
“Most small businesses are resource-constrained. It’s not just money constraints; it’s that plus time and people constraints.”
Small businesses are the heart and soul of the American economy. These places need your support. If they don’t have it, they cannot survive, let alone flourish.
So, remember to support the little ones folks. We are lucky to have options and the ability to dine anywhere we want but in order to build a sense of community, we must support the businesses right in our own neighborhood.
Let’s toast to that.