The name Café Mars might conjure images of Mars 2112, the legendary shuttered Space Age Times Square restaurant, but there are no rocket ships, aliens, or freeze-dried space food to be found here. Either way, opening on Wednesday, May 17, at 272 Third Avenue, at President Street, Café Mars is unusual for Gowanus, a neighborhood due for a culinary shake-up.
Format Architecture Office designed the 55-seat space in the style of Memphis Milano, the design and architecture movement started by Ettore Sottsass in the 1980s in Italy, that’s seen a resurgence here in New York over the past couple of years. At Café Mars, the door handles are made with fettuccine and spaghetti dies from the nearby D. Maldari & Sons, which first opened in 1901. There are three-foot-tall pepper mills; custom chairs by Studio Apotroes with neon pink squiggly legs; and neon wall accents that make the space almost look like a family-friendly, all-ages nightclub by dark.
The maximalist new venture is from co-chefs Paul D’Avino and Jorge Olarte, who, between them, have worked at Wd~50, Aska, Noma’s fermentation lab, Momofuku Ssam Bar, and Narcissa, among others. Manager Madalyn Summers pulls back and front-of-house experience from the world of Major Food Group, Estela, and M. Wells.
In the early 20th century, Café Mars was a pasta factory, later an Italian American deli, located across from where D’Avino’s great-grandfather first moved after immigrating from Tramonti, in the province of Campania. In channeling the spirit of its past life, the team hopes the food “adds to the conversation” about Italian cooking in New York. D’Avino says that their menu will highlight ways Italian food is consumed across the world, not just in Italy: such as Japanese and Italian Itameshi cuisine.
The regularly-changing menu intends to be equally as colorful as the design. There are snacks like the adults-only jell-olives, in which Casteveltrano olives are suspended in a Negroni jelly, almost like an aspic salad mixed with those new-wave Jell-O shots; anchovies come dressed with a mignonette made from pizza crust oil and pepperoncini; and crackers are served with chicken liver mousse and rhubarb mustarda. Customers might be wondering what the Pamersan-cured bass with “crazy water” really is; according to the team, the phrase in Italian is acqua pazza, usually a tomatoey broth for cooking fish, which they’ve used for a crudo. “We went all-in on doing things ‘wrong’ for this dish,” said D’Avino.
Among entrees, the restaurant challenges tradition while honoring certain techniques. Pastas made in-house include a loaded baked potato gnocchi with bacon, broccoli, and cheese; as well as triangle penne with short ribs. Bigger plates include what they’re calling pancake primavera (“essentially okonomiyaki seen through an Italian lens”), and smoked pork rib parm with a spaghetti salad. A dessert menu lists marble cake that uses black olives, Amarena cherries, and whipped cream; as well as blood orange Italian ice with Campari and prosecco jellies.