At first glance, Gaia seems like the type of restaurant you’d go to to avoid people. Like if you had to go to dinner with friends you’re ashamed to be seen with, or a mistress you shouldn’t be seen with at all, this would be the place to go. It’s in the basement of a very non descript building, so most people wouldn’t even notice it was there, which is great for you to keep a low-profile. It’s also a little janky–you feel like you’re in someone’s old but comfortable living room, where past issues of the New Yorker are strewn about everywhere, and you drink out of these big, plastic frat-house looking cups. Bringing someone here sends a real, clear signal that you’re not trying to impress them at all.
But this is the one time where you want to be the shady mistress, where you want to be the cheap date, because the food here is very good. Gaia serves delicious, no-fuss, homestyle Italian food at extremely reasonable prices. No dish costs more than $7, which is even cheaper than getting a sandwich or salad at Cosi, and tastes 10x better. Granted, the atmosphere is extremely casual–you have to line up like you’re at a DMV to get a table–but when you’re doing BYOB and eating a panini filled with the most incredible buffalo mozzarella cheese, then you could care less about atmosphere. Speaking of atmosphere, because Gaia is so affordable and has a BYOB policy, expect to see lots of young, NYU looking undergrads here. Their conversations about how they want to go to business school in London or how their dating standards are too high might be annoying, but if you get in on the BYOB fun, that buzz can deafen the noise of mindless chatter.
Ruoxi and I decided to split an order of the arugula and cherry tomato salad, the spinach and ricotta gnocchi and the bubi panini. The arugula and tomato salad was simple but tasty. The pesto certainly provided the greens with a lot of flavor and brightened up what could have been a pretty standard plate of greens. You almost didn’t need the extra flair from the balsamic vinegar or honey mustard dressing, because the garlic did so much of the work for you.
The simmering pot of warm spinach and ricotta gnocchi arrived next, a very welcome sight on a brisk fall day. Gaia’s take on gnocchi is a little different from what you might be used to. Typical gnocchi balls tend to be pretty neutral in taste, since they consist mostly of flour and potato, and some of the flavor might come from a hint of cheese here and there, but mostly from the surrounding sauce. At Gaia, the spinach and ricotta cheese were front and center, I didn’t even taste any other carby filler in there, it would be more accurate to call them spinach and ricotta meatballs. I could imagine an old Italian grandmother rolling them out in the back and serving them in her special homemade sauce. Anything that reminds me of grandma’s cooking definitely deserves a high rating.
The bubi panini arrived last, a delicate construction of two, wispy flatbreads precariously housing a cloudy puff of fresh mozzarella cheese, drizzled in olive oil, and accompanied by fragrant tomatoes and basil. It was a very simple sandwich, which worked in its favor since there was no need to dress up the incredibly fresh ingredients. And besides, you can never go wrong pairing golden, crusty and salty bread with creamy cheese.
We were comfortably satiated by the end of the meal. The portions are on the smallish size, especially the paninis, which are more like appetizers. But in general the ingredients are rich so that you don’t need a gigantic amount of food here to feel full. It’s always nice to eat a full Italian meal without feeling overstuffed and enormous. The only shortcoming of Gaia is the limited hours of operation. The kitchen closes at 6:30 during the week, so you would have to commit to an earlier seating for dinners, and on Sunday it doesn’t open at all. Italian is good any hour of the day, however, especially Saturday with some BYOB, so skip the chichi brunch bellinis, and kick back with the undergrads and watch them talk on and on about their dreams!
251 East Houston St (between Norfolk and Suffolk St)
New York, NY 10002