Gaia Italian Cafe is the restaurant version of, “I know he isn’t super cute and drives a shitty car, but I think you should give him a shot because he’s a really good guy. He’s funny, genuine, and cooks a mean meal.” Plus I heard he’s great in bed.”
Despite the patio furniture and red solo cups, Gaia is one of my favorite dining experiences in NYC. It’s a small, charming, homey, inexpensive, one-of-a-kind Italian spot tucked under the street in the Lower East Side. If you come to Gaia with your expectations set straight, it might just be your new favorite too. Here are some of the quick pros and cons:
- Gaia isn’t just extremely cheap for an authentic home-style Italian dinner ($8-14 entrees), she also boasts high-quality food that would easily be 2-4x the price anywhere else. That makes Gaia the best value you can get.
- BYOB with no corkage fee. Awesome.
- Tables are slotted so the restaurant always feels full. You can feel in the air that everyone in the place is having a great time. It makes for a warm and fun environment for all occasions.
- The food is fucking divine.
- Almost everything on the menu will come with homemade focaccia.
- The specials change constantly, so chances are you can try something new every time you go.
- Gaia (the owner) is always there and she’ll be the one cooking your meal.
- The tables are a little dingey. There’s a chance you might sit at a plastic patio table set (we did). The table we sat at wasn’t exactly the cleanest.
- The solo cups they give you for water seem to have been washed and reused.
- They run a skeleton crew of 2-3 people, so service can be pretty bad when they’re busy.
- They can often run out of some of their best dishes, and they limit you on bread.
- Reservations must be made for dinner.
In my opinion, the pros far outweigh the cons. When it comes to affordability, quality, and level of service, most restaurants can only excel at two of the three, so it’s no surprise that there have to be some corners cut. Honestly, if the cons didn’t exist, Gaia would be a too good to be true situation. I’d be suspicious.
I spoke with Gaia (pictured above) after our meal, and I respect what she’s doing with her establishment. Her mission is to make the best food possible while giving customers a fair price. She’s got so much love and passion for making great food, but she also truly cares about her customers and fostering a sense of community through her restaurant. When you eat there, you can actually feel it. In some roundabout way, the bad service is actually her form of respecting us as customers.
Here’s what we had for dinner:
- Antipasto Italiano Con Focaccia (Medium) – $18 [Good way to get started, but a non-essential]
- Bresaola Carpaccio – $10 [I enjoyed it, my friends didn’t]
- Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi – $10 [Doesn’t look amazing, but it is]
- Meat Lasagna – $10 [Must order]
- Orecchiette in Tomato and Black Olive Sauce with Zucchini and Shrimp – $14 [Really fucking good]
- Sirloin Pork Cannelloni in Light Tomato/Pesto Sauce with Eggplant and Tomato -$14 [We were already too full to really enjoy this one]
Most items on the menu are great. I’d recommend trying a few of the appetizers, getting 1-2 of the permanent menu entrees like the meat lasagna or spinach and ricotta gnocchi, and then picking something from the specials menu. They didn’t have the octopus salad the last time I went, but it’s easily my favorite thing on the menu.
If you decide to go to Gaia, remember that you MUST make a reservation for dinner. You also have to make sure to call between 9-12AM or 3-5PM, and sometimes they’re too busy and won’t pick up the phone. Call again if that’s the case. I’d call 1-2 weeks ahead if you can. Make sure to read up on the information tab on their website, as they are particular about certain things. When you arrive, don’t be put off if the host is short with you. She’s a good and is really nice, but when she’s busy she’s not going to deal with your bullshit. My best advice is to show up hungry, bring wine, and don’t take yourselves too seriously.
If you end up going to Gaia, I’d love to hear what you think!