We stayed in Tribeca during our recent return to NYC, and after lunch at Dokodemo we strolled around Little Italy. I’d made reservations at Aunt Jake’s, so we walked there, past the aggressive restaurant-criers of Mulberry Street. “Fresh-a pasta! Pizza! You no a-like, you no a-pay!” Does that work even on tourists? I’d think it would tend to repel them. Perhaps there’s a sliver of the market that goes to Little Italy wanting to be screamed at. Aunt Jake’s is quite different, friendly and approachable with attentive (but not overly so) service and excellent Italian food, set in a two-story rustic townhouse with old-fashioned, homey touches.
The food… The photo at top depicts the All Natural Beef Meatballs appetizer. It’s big, tender meatballs swimming in thick marinara sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, basil, chili spice and white wine. It’s garnished with parsley and grated pecorino that melts into the hot sauce. It’s good, but not spicy — I find myself dashing red chili peppers over it. We also order the Golden Beet Salad (below left), which this review describes as “bland.” This is actually the first time I’ve seen golden beets. It’s true their taste is more subtle than that of their red cousins, and their texture more firm, but there’s nothing bland about it. It’s fresh and light, an arugula salad with ricotta and shaved pistachios, served with a spritzing of saba dressing.
You get to pick your own pasta shape, which you then pair with a sauce. This is the greatest thing ever. Our strategy is to choose from among the more complicated pastas, the ones it would take a while to prepare at home: like farfalle (bowtie-shaped) or Gluten-free Herb Ravioli stuffed with Four Cheeses. Both seem like good bets — though it’s not like we’re going to be rolling our own garganelli anytime soon, either. Even if this guy has no problem with it.
We order the ravioli (above right), which turns out to be every bit as cheesy as you’d expect from the name. I ask our waiter what his favorite sauce is and get that as well: the Alla Vodka Sauce. This is a good choice, both creamy and sweet with marinara. What are the four cheeses, you may be wondering; see the menu (where it appears that “Fontal” is misspelled).
Many dishes come with side slices of salty, crusty, heart-shaped ciabatta bread, which are perfect for transferring all the leftover sauce from the plate or bowl to your face, where it belongs. You can see the heart shapes best in the photo below, left. That’s the sweet-potato gnocchi that our neighbors at the next table ordered; they kindly let us snap a pic.
We order a Malbec that has made its way from the Tumul and Pedernal Valleys of San Juan (also well-known for its Syrahs) and a piña colada to mix things up a little. The wine is fantastic — ripe with a bit of vanilla and black pepper in the finish. It would probably go well with just about anything on the menu, and makes us wish we’d tried the Cabernet Sauvignon, too. Next time we’ll probably stick with the wine list and maybe have a Cynar after, especially if skipping dessert, as on this occasion — we’ll save that for the stroll back to the hotel. So no salted-caramel doughnuts tonight, sadly. Or next time, if in the mood for cocktails, maybe we’ll visit nearby Mulberry Project.
This would be a good place for a semi-private or large-group gathering, with upstairs seating that sets you apart from the riff-raff downstairs (like us). They also hold “Pasta Lab” classes here, in which you consume the product of your own hand-making. Hospitality genius. When the restaurant opened three-and-a-half years ago, the upstairs part was all there was; the downstairs expansion — which now accounts for about ninety percent of the total seating space — came later.
This place was a great choice — everything was fresh and done just right. We doubt you could go wrong with anything on the menu, which has clearly been designed to stand out in this once predominantly Italian-American neighborhood. (Yes, Little Italy has been a shrinking sidecar to Chinatown’s rickshaw for decades.)
♦ An article at Resident.com about the executive chef
♦ The Urban Scoop‘s review
♦ Thrillist: “The Definitive Guide to Eating in Little Italy”
♦ If you haven’t tried Cynar (pronounced CHEE-nahr, with a trilled r), that’s probably because it’s a liqueur made from artichokes, which doesn’t really seem like it should be a thing. (Well, artichokes — cynar in Latin — plus a dozen other herbs and plants.) It was introduced in 1952 with the ad slogan, “Cynar — contro il logorio della vita moderna” (“against the wear and tear of modern life”). It’s like a pungent, bittersweet herbal port, at 16.5 percent ABV — about half the strength of an older Sicilian cousin. Cynar is good with appetizers or as a digestif, and not hard to find at Virginia ABC stores. Saluti.
♦ Serious Eats: “An Introduction to Cynar”
♦ “The New York Times”: “Little Italy is Very Little, and Not Very Italian”