I told you guys I’d be back. I knew you couldn’t keep me away from New York for too long. And Thanksgiving was just the right occasion to come back East for a few days of powering through my old stomping ground. To be honest, this rampage sort of turned into a food and drink greatest hits extravaganza. You’ll see what I mean when I get around to publishing everything I ate…
Anyway, while in SF, one of the things I’ve been missing most from my time in NY is access to great, simple, Italian comfort food. I just haven’t been able to find a reliable red sauce joint out here yet. So, I made sure that one of my first stops in NY was at one of my old NYC favorites, Fiat Café in Nolita, for a cheap, filling, and reliably delicious meal.
This little cafe is always filled tightly – packed with as many with tables and chairs as they possibly can. The vibe and decor both feel distinctly European with casual and laid back, but friendly service and walls literally covered in Fiat cars. It may seem like a strange thematic element to an Italian restaurant, but it works. Fiat Café’s website even includes an interactive panorama of the space if you want to get a better sense of the place.
I’ve always felt that this pint-sized cafe doesn’t gets as much attention or credit as it should. It’s in a trendy part of town and everything is done really well. I’ve always enjoyed stopping in for a deliciously cheap (and actually good) Italian meal while in the area. Yes, I’m looking at you, Little Italy.
One of the main reasons I keep coming back to Fiat Café time and time again is their wine list. It’s both very good and very reasonably priced. They offer around five different bottles at a time and they all hover around the $20 mark. There’s no price gouging or up-charging here, just good and well-priced bottles.
So, for this meal – as we frequently do – we went for a bottle of their Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. I always find that this Italian red wine varietal is a reliable choice wherever I am. It definitely pairs well with bold and hearty Italian cuisine.
For starters, we went with the Carpaccio di Manzo (Beef Carpaccio) which came served with a massive arugula salad dressed simply with lemon and truffle oil. The quality of the super-thin, bright-red, raw beef was the first thing that I noticed while digging into the dish. It was extraordinarily tender and the dish’s simple preparation allowed the un-futzed-with meat to shine to its fullest.
The Arugula Salad which might normally seem like an afterthought was actually really excellent too. The citrusy flavor of the lemon dressing and truffle oil really hit the spot for me and mixed with the greens nicely. And at only $8 for the entire gigantic plate, it was quite a deal.
We also started off with an order of Prosciutto di Parma and Mozzarella. This meat and cheese platter included a nice portion of smokey, sliced and rolled prosciutto laid overtop big, thick, round slices of fresh mozzarella and it was delicately dressed with olive oil, salt, and pepper. While it’s definitely a simple pleasure, it’s also another great deal for only $6.50.
For my sister’s main, she went with the Gnocchi in Cream Sauce pasta special. Those light, fluffy, little potato-y pillows were drenched in a rich and creamy sauce and were topped with a hearty handful of porky pancetta and peas. It was a lot like a carbonara, actually.
She gave me a few forkfuls and I can confirm that this bowl of gnocchi was indeed very delicious. I will caveat though that the portion of this dish was a little bit smaller than most of the other offerings – likely an adjustment due to the heaviness of the cream sauce. Still, this was another great deal at only around $12 for the bowl.
I think my buddy Lance may have gone a little overboard at this meal. He ordered himself two entire entrees and started with the Veal Parmesan special. Even though this item was one of the most expensive things offered at Fiat Café, it still only topped out at $15. The portion was very generous and it even came with a pile of tomato sauce-covered spaghetti as a side.
But, I didn’t love it. The flattened and fried veal wasn’t as crispy or hot inside as I would have hoped for, unfortunately. I think perhaps they mistimed the plating of the dish in the kitchen. I’d recommend sticking to one of the many deliciously cheap pastas or antipasti offered instead.
For Lance’s second main, he went for the Pappardelle Pasta with Shitake Mushrooms, Oyster Mushrooms, Cremini Mushrooms, Duck Confit, Ragout, and Truffle Oil – a much better choice. It’s a pretty crazy sounding pasta that I have also had and enjoyed before. The wide pappardelle noodles were cooked nicely, but that super meaty ragout loaded with tender, shredded duck confit is what really makes this $13.50 dish worthwhile. It’s just so strange and well, wonderful.
For my main, I couldn’t resist the Bucatini Matriciana which was a crazy steal at only $9.50 for the gigantic bowl. Bucatini, which is sort of like a hollow spaghetti, is my favorite pasta shape and I’m usually drawn to it when it’s available. In this dish, the fantastically fresh and very al dente bucatini noodles were smothered in a complex tomato sauce that was kicked up with garlic, red onion, and pancetta. The dish was filling and extremely satisfying and served as an excellent base for the night of heavy drinking ahead.
So there you have it – Fiat Café. Somehow Italian food has proven to be one of the only cuisines San Francisco can’t seem to fully figure out. So, I was very happy to find on my return trip to NY that Fiat Café was able to live up to my expectations. They certainly did an excellent job quenching my thirst for awesome, cheap Italian food and I’m willing to bet you’ll love it too.
Got another great, cheap Italian spot in NY I should check out next time I’m in town? Got a place in San Francisco I should go to to get my fix? Let me know in the comments below.
203 Mott St. New York, NY 10012