Red-sauced Italian American fare dominated our Italian restaurant scene until Tuscan cuisine arrived with a bang around 40 years ago. Our regard for its simple recipes, seasonal ingredients, and wood-burning ovens quickly became a culinary obsession, while tomato-sauced pastas took a back seat. Not long after, other regional Italian cuisines like Roman and Venetian arrived and continued the trend of recreating recipes diners would find in Italy. But an exceptional new restaurant in Carroll Gardens that’s been open three weeks aggressively turns its focus back to the Italian American fare of a century ago, and it goes by the unimaginative name of Cafe Spaghetti.
Take the spiedini alla Romana ($15). In the ancient red-sauced joints of the city, it’s often a battered and deep-fried cheese sandwich smothered in tomato sauce. At Cafe Spaghetti, by contrast, the dish is updated: Still fundamentally a toasted cheese sandwich, it finds itself sluiced in a light lemony sauce sparsely dotted with tomatoes and anchovies, with mozzarella made recently in the kitchen oozing from the cut surfaces — a triumph of Italian American cooking updated for modern times.
Located across the street from Ferdinando’s Focacceria, NYC’s oldest Sicilian restaurant, Cafe Spaghetti occupies a deep narrow storefront. Entering under a green awning, diners pass a dark bar with a few tables and an open kitchen leading to a small dining room, with displays of timeworn Italian photos, objets d’art, and religious statuary throughout. Along the way, customers will likely spot the Bensonhurst-reared chef Salvatore Lamboglia — bearded, tattooed, and charismatic.
Next, walk down a few steps to one of Brooklyn’s most glorious back yards. A sky-blue Vespa is parked in the center, upon which children cavort early in the evening as adults relax at tables in the vine-covered enclosure as the sun turns the scene golden pink.
Yes, the toasted cheese sandwich blew me away, but then so did the artichokes. It was not the Sicilian standard of a ginormous specimen topped with grated cheese and baked, but baby artichokes cut, crumbed, and fried, then served with aioli for dipping. My dining partner and I sat drinking a wonderful white fizzy wine — Mongarda Glera ($45) from a short-but-interesting wine list — kept on ice on a warm evening, we saw plate after plate of diminutive rice balls fly by dusted with cheese, and regretted not having ordered them. Other antipasti include an octopus-and-potato salad, and a Caesar salad that features sesame seeds, reminding us how close Italy is to North Africa.
My friend and I ordered two pastas from a list of six ($18 to $24), skipping the self-referential spaghetti with tomato sauce as it didn’t seem very interesting compared to the others. Attributed by the menu to Genoa and the chef’s grandmother, fusilli grosso is a playfully large version of the familiar corkscrew noodle, teeming with crumbled meat notably herbaceous, like a drive through the Italian countryside past fragrant bushes of sage and rosemary. Even better was the orecchiette. The ear-shaped pasta dressed with broccoli rabe and pork sausage could serve as a culinary snapshot of Apulia, the region from which many Italian Brooklynites immigrated. The fennel in the sausage reveals itself after other melded flavors, and leaves a lasting impression on your tongue, even as the bitterness of the green vegetable lingers.
These were two of the best pastas I’ve tasted all year and served in generous portions. So it was inevitable, I guess, that the menu took a nose dive at this point. There are only four secondi listed, of a prosaic variety, including a chicken cutlet; branzino with puttanesca — normally a pasta sauce; and a 10-ounce strip steak that doesn’t really belong on this menu and, at $38, is its most expensive item. Instead, we went for “Patrizia’s eggplant parm” ($24), which comes in a casserole and contains both provolone and that wonderful homemade mozzarella. Unfortunately, the dish is heavy as a brick, and the tomato sauce impenetrably dense, although maybe a little ricotta and a little more eggplant might have lightened everything up.
We couldn’t resist trying a couple of the desserts, even though we’d already eaten enough for three or four people. Dad’s tiramisu ($12 — yes, everyone in the chef’s family gets into the act) was airy and tasting mainly of chocolate, more like a souffle than the usual versions around town. Though our mouths had watered at the menu’s mention of zeppole, it turned out to be more like a stuffed cream puff than the deep-fried-and-powdered-sugared dough balls that street-fair attendees love. In this case, a timid pudding had rendered the shell soggy, and even the brandied cherries on top couldn’t redeem it.
So, stick with the appetizers and pastas — along with a glass or two of wine — and have one of the season’s best meals.
Café Spaghetti is located at 126 Union Street, between Hicks and Columbia streets.