Italian-American dishes with red sauce dominated our Italian restaurants until Tuscan cuisine appeared about 40 years ago. Our focus on his simple recipes, seasonal ingredients, and wood-fired ovens quickly became a culinary obsession, while pasta with tomato sauce faded into the background. Shortly thereafter, other regional Italian cuisines emerged, such as Roman and Venetian, which continued the trend of recreating recipes that visitors would find in Italy. But an exceptional new restaurant in Carroll Gardens, which opened three weeks ago, is turning its attention to century-old Italian-American cuisine with the unimaginable name of Spaghetti Cafe.
Take spiedini alla Romana ($15). The city’s ancient red sauce restaurants often serve a deep-fried cheese sandwich drenched in tomato sauce. At the Spaghetti Café, by contrast, the dish is updated: still essentially a toasted cheese sandwich, it turns out to be drizzled with a light lemon sauce, lightly studded with tomatoes and anchovies, with mozzarella freshly cooked in the kitchen oozing from the cuts – a triumph. Italian-American cuisine updated with modernity.
Café Spaghetti, located across the street from Ferdinando’s Focacceria, New York’s oldest Sicilian restaurant, occupies a deep, narrow shop window. Entering under a green canopy, visitors pass by a dark bar with a few tables and an open kitchen leading to a small dining room where old Italian photographs, art and religious sculptures are displayed throughout. Along the way, customers are likely to spot Bensonhurst-bred chef Salvatore Lamboglia – bearded, tattooed and charismatic.
Then walk down a few steps to one of Brooklyn’s most gorgeous backyards. A sky-blue Vespa is parked in the center, where children frolic early in the evening, and adults relax at tables in a vine-covered fence, while the sun paints the stage in golden pink.
Yes, the toasted cheese sandwich blew me away, but so did the artichokes. It was not the Sicilian standard: a giant specimen topped with grated cheese and baked, but young artichokes sliced, crumbled and fried, then served with aioli for dipping. My partner and I sat and drank a wonderful white sparkling wine – Mongarda Glera ($45) from a short but interesting wine list – we kept it on ice on a warm evening, and we watched plate after plate of tiny rice balls sprinkled with cheese fly by. and regretted not ordering them. Other antipasti include octopus and potato salad and Caesar salad with sesame seeds, reminding us how close Italy is to North Africa.
My friend and I ordered two of a list of six pastas ($18 to $24), skipping the self-referential spaghetti with tomato sauce as they didn’t seem very interesting compared to the others. Attributed on the menu to Genoa and the chef’s grandmother, fusilli grosso is a playfully large version of the familiar corkscrew noodles, brimming with crumbled meat, especially grassy as a ride through the Italian countryside past fragrant sage and rosemary bushes. Orecchiette was even better. The ear-shaped pasta topped with broccoli rabe and pork sausage can serve as a culinary snapshot of Puglia, a region from which many Italian Brooklynians have immigrated. The fennel in the sausage opens up after other blended flavors and leaves a lasting impression on your tongue, even when the bitterness of the green vegetable lingers.
These were two of the best pastas I’ve had all year and were served in generous portions. So I guess it was inevitable that the menu went nose-dived at that point. There are only four second, prosaic varieties on the list, including chicken cutlet; branzino with puttanesca – usually a sauce for pasta; and a 10-ounce strip steak, which is not actually on this menu and costs $38 and is his most expensive meal. Instead, we opted for Patricia’s Eggplant Parm ($24), which comes in a casserole and contains both provolone and wonderful homemade mozzarella. Unfortunately, the dish is brick-heavy and the tomato sauce is impenetrably thick, although maybe a little ricotta and a little more eggplant would make things easier.
We couldn’t resist trying a couple of desserts even though we had already eaten enough for three or four people. Dad’s tiramisu ($12 – yes, all members of the chef’s family take part in the action) was airy and tasted mostly chocolate, more like a soufflé than the usual versions in town. Although we salivated at the mention of zeppole on the menu, it turned out to be more like stuffed puff pastry than the deep-fried and sugared dough balls that street fair goers love so much. In this case, the timid pudding made the shell soggy that not even the brandy cherries could redeem it.
So, stick to appetizers and pasta – along with a glass or two of wine – and have one of the best meals of the season.
Spaghetti Cafe is located at 126 Union Street, between Hicks and Columbia Streets.