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Nov 19, 2011 07:07 PM

Gaia Italian Café – Great Homemade Italian Sandwiches, Salads and Other Specialties in the Lower Eastside

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Gaia is a casual cafe in the Lower Eastside that serves casual Italian food mainly sandwiches, salads and a few pastas. I found this place fairly recently and I’ve been going most weekends for lunch for the last couple of months as the food is excellent and the prices are very reasonable for the high quality of food you’re getting.

The restaurant is in a weird location on Houston below the street level in a basement type area. The room has walls with exposed brick and the floors are all wood. It’s got around 6 tables with magazines on them and it’s generally a very casual place.

The owner is a nice Italian woman who does all the cooking herself. She clearly takes pride in her food and I really like that. I will say that while she is great, the other people there are somewhat incompetent and dealing with them can be a pain if it’s crowded as they re disorganized and don’t seem to really know what they’re doing. However, the food is very good and the owner is great, so I don’t mind at the end of the day, but just a word of warning about that.

Anyhow, onto the food:
- Bresaola Carpaccio with Arugula, Parmesan: Bresaola is a salt cured beef. It was tender and delicious and paired perfectly with the argula and parmesan. The owner squeezed a lemon over the whole thing, which really kicks it up a notch. This is my favorite dish here. 8.75/10
- Arugula Salad with Cherry Tomatoes in Pesto Sauce with Parmesan: This salad is self-explanatory, but it is excellent. The pesto sauce goes really well with the parmesan and argula. This is really good. 8.5/10
- Delizioso: This sandwich is prosciutto cotto, mozzarella, tomato, anchioves and mustard. As a note - for all of the sandwiches, the bread that is used is homemade and is amazing (I’d give the bread 8.75/10). It is thin and crispy and has great flavor. All the ingredients in the sandwich were good. However, the mustard was sweet and prosciutto cotto isn’t a salty meat, so I thought it made the sandwich a little too sweet. I would’ve liked it much better if it wasn’t sweet mustard. 7.25/10
- Montanaro: This sandwich is speck, taleggio and mixed vegetables. Speck is a type of ham and taleggio is a type of cheese that reminds me of brie cheese. The sandwich tastes just like it sounds and it was quite good. 8/10
- Elegante: This sandwich is bresaola, goat cheese, lemon and black pepper. The saltiness of bresaola goes very nicely with the goat cheese and lemon. This might be the best sandwich I’ve tried here. 8.25/10
- Milanese: This sandwich is chicken cutlet, pesto sauce and tomatoes. The chicken cutlet is breaded and fried and then topped with pesto sauce and chopped tomatoes. The pesto sauce is very good and the sandwich is tasty. The only downfall was the chicken was slightly drier than I like, but still good. 8/10
- Bubi: This sandwich is mozzarella di bufala, tomatoes and basil. This is a very simple and self-explanatory sandwich, but all the ingredients are excellent and paired with the awesome bread this was very good. 8.25/10
- Angel Wings: The owner bakes all of her own pastries, which is commendable as that is quite time consuming. The angel wings are best if you can get them out of the oven and taste great with coffee. They are not quite as good if they’ve been sitting around for a while. 8/10
- Brioche with Orange Marmalade: This is pretty self-explanatory. It was decent although next time I’d prefer it with Nutella, which is the other option. 7.25/10
- Lemon Cookie: This was a lemon cookie with white frosting. It was okay, but I thought it was a little flat flavor wise. 6.75/10
- Strawberry Jam Pastry: This was an almond paste pastry that was topped with strawberry jam. I’ve always like almost paste pastries, so that was good. However, the strawberry jam was too sweet and there was too much of it, so it was a bit overpowering. 7/10
- Greek Yogurt with Strawberry and a Touch of Coffee: This was a simple dessert of Greek yogurt, freshly cut strawberries, honey and coffee powder. Everything was fresh and delicious. I really liked this dessert. 8.5/10
- Macchiato: I’m not the biggest coffee drinker, but this coffee was quite nice. 8/10
- Pear Juice: While it had good flavor and was freshly squeezed, it was sort of room temperature, which I didn’t think went over so well since it was a pear. 7/10

Overall, I really enjoy Gaia a lot and I’d highly recommend checking it out.

251 E Houston St, New York, NY 10002

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  1. Right w you on this one Lau, Gaia is great, the owner is lovely, and the food is great, really gives me a feeling of being back in Firenze.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Hey19

      yah its really good, im not an italian expert, but generally the food i got here was similar to what i got in italy, i'd say the bresaola carpaccio is actually better than what i got in italy. the bread she makes is really really good

    2. It does not get any better than Gaia Italian Cafè. It just doesn't. Everything on the menu is perfect, from the espresso to the pasta to the salad to the desserts. Gaia is one of my two favorite restaurants in NYC. Her espresso and cappuccino is perfect every time too. Dollar-for-dollar, there is not a better value anywhere.

      7 Replies
      1. re: popcontest

        glad you enjoyed, i think this place is really a hidden gem that people need to find out about

        1. re: Lau

          I really like this place too and I kind of hope less people find out about it before it becomes one of those Nolita type places with 50 billion people queuing up outside... I Iike how laid back it is and the owner is great. I haven't been addressed as "nice gentleman" in a while, if ever...

          The system where you order your meal at the counter and they bring it to you and you go to the counter again to pay is kind of weird, and the staff seem a bit disorganized / stressed when the place is busy... today my wife got the wrong sandwich but didn't realize it until the guy at the next table got her sandwich...

          But the food is great and $5 for a sandwich is truly a steal when you consider places in NYC serving this type of food usually charge 2x as much...and the past two times I've been they've tried to refuse my tip or not charged me for the coffee! Nice people.

          1. re: pravit

            yah its definitely one of the best kept secrets in NY for some reason perhaps because of the weird location. That is the one issue with the place is that the staff she has hired is pretty sub par, she's always busy preparing food and the staff can't seem to run things very well

            1. re: Lau

              I feel like all that disorganization etc just adds to the charm. It makes it more authentically Italian. Everything there is great, and the staff are friendly.

              1. re: Hey19

                yah they are friendly just not very efficient

              2. re: Lau

                "That is the one issue with the place is that the staff she has hired is pretty sub par, she's always busy preparing food and the staff can't seem to run things very well."

                I've not been, but that in itself makes it seem authentically Italian! Even the web site has that substandard feeling a lot of restaurants Italian web sites have! lol

                1. re: ttoommyy

                  she's really nice and a great cook, but def not the person you want running your operations. she really just needs a competent manager, she should have lines out the door, her food is way better than alot of hyped up places

        2. I know I've probably said it enough, but I really can't get enough of Gaia. Easily my favorite restaurant, especially considering the ridiculously low prices.

          She had another pizza special today, and crabmeat ravioli in a tomato sauce with capers. Spectacular.

          13 Replies
          1. re: howdini

            its def one of the most underrated restaurants i know of in NY

            1. re: Lau

              Add to this the fact that the prices haven't changed since your OP.

              1. re: howdini

                this reminds me that i havent been there in a while

                1. re: Lau

                  Oh, also: l overheard her speaking with a couple of customers about how much it would cost to rent out/do a private dinner there. She told them...$30/person [my guess is 20-30ppl max can fit in there]. The mind boggles.

                  1. re: howdini

                    really? wow i may take her up on that

            2. re: howdini

              Yeah Gaia is the best, I wish she would just get her business in order a bit more. Be open on sunday, be open till nine or something, maybe take mon/tues off instead, find a good, long term FOH solution. I almost want to quit my day job and be her FOH, just to get it sorted. Her prices are so low, that I imagine all of this is easier said than done, but then, raise the prices a little. Anyway, she is great, I wish she enjoyed it more, and her food is great, and its a great value. I need to go back, I havent been in a while, the hours make it tough for me.

              1. re: Hey19

                yah she really should be like one of these hyped up hit type places that there are big lines for, but she's not bc she really doesn't know how to run her business. That said, she's a great chef and makes wonderful food

                1. re: Lau

                  I can feel the sarcasm. But come on. Im not suggesting Gaia be the next shake shack, I just think a little organization etc would really help, maybe more for her peace of mind than anything else.

                  1. re: Hey19

                    no i actually wasn't being sarcastic, i really think Gaia should be like one of those places places that always packed, but its not and i really think its bc she's just a great chef and not a very good businesswoman

                    1. re: Lau

                      ah, the one time I thought I actually picked up on tone on the internet, I was wrong! Well, I hope she gets it together a little, just enough to lower the stress level, and everything else stays the same.

                      1. re: Hey19

                        l think she likes to maintain a tremendous degree of control over the food, and if the FOH suffers a bit for it, so be it. The service has been better of late: she's found at least one young guy who, while not the most efficient, is very obviously trying to do a good job. There was a new young woman at the register/serving yesterday who was very sweet and doing a good job, too.

                        Hers is exactly the type of place that can be killed by too much success. Not that l don't wish her all success, of course, l just want her to be as happy as possible doing what she's doing, for as long as she can [forever, truth be told].

                        1. re: howdini

                          well i guess thats a good point, i doubt she could handle the volume given what its like with less volume

            3. I'm sorry I missed your recommendation in 2011, and I'm glad she's still in business.

              8 Replies
              1. re: Pan

                give it a whirl...its very good and cheap

                1. re: Lau

                  I plan on it. By the way, my girlfriend and I had dinner at Som Tom Der tonight. It was excellent, and I'll post a fuller report later.

                  1. re: Pan

                    glad you enjoyed

                    if you're around Gaia, I'd recommend Boubouki as well for some dessert...its really good (another highly underrated spot)

                  2. re: Lau

                    I take it she doesn't have a liquor license? Unless I missed it in the thread, I didn't see mention of wine or any other drinks - nor on Gaia's website.

                    1. re: VaPaula

                      hmm i dont think they have liquor, be aware this is a very casual place to eat. You place your order at the cash register and they'll bring you the food, its much more like a cafe vs a true restaurant

                      1. re: VaPaula

                        I think I have seen some people BYOB but thats it.

                        1. re: Hey19

                          Thank you both! It's on a short (OK, it's not really that short) list for this weekend.

                        2. re: VaPaula

                          Byob. If you go on the weekend, realize that she's closed on Sundays.

                    2. Gaia is a gift to New York City. We are blessed to have Gaia cooking for us.