How often do you walk into an Italian Caffe/Bistro these days and get to order something that a) you've never tried before or, in my case, never even heard of; b) turns out to be totally delicious?
The answer, of course, is not often enough... but that's exactly what happened to me last week at Caffe Emilia, a sliver—a mere hallway—of an East Village restaurant that's been open for about three months now. This is an informal, inexpensive place, run by Italian hipsters, with a warm, contemporary feel and a cozy garden out back that about doubles the seating capacity. In other words: a nice neighborhood spot for a leisurely date or gathering of friends.
Anyway, the dish I discovered, and which the kitchen appears to handle quite well, is Malfatti, a form of gnocchi made from ricotta and spinach, held together by, I think, semolina, and served here in a Parmesan butter sauce. This was light ("pillowy", I believe, is the preferred adjective), perfectly balanced, beautifully satisfying. I also ordered a Carciofello Tramezzini, which was like a large, triple-decker tea sandwich: cold, almost soggy white bread, crusts cut off, made surprisingly good by the top-notch fillings of sweet ham, sharp fontina and a rich artichoke spread. For dessert I had the thickest Panna Cotta in history, the intense milky cheesiness broken up by a tart strawberry and pistachio core. This was definitely good, but was also way too much for one person.
I liked my meal (and its price) so much that I returned to Emilia a few nights later. And although there was no revelation like the Malfatti this time, dinner was again agreeable enough to make this a regular East Village option. This time I tried a Piandina, the Classica, which consisted of warm, thin, almost pita-y bread stuffed with prosciutto, mild stracchino cheese and an (over)abundance of arugula. I also ordered the Roasted Market Vegetables with bechamel and Parmesan, which was fine—the veggies were fresh and tasty—but would have been much improved by more roasting, more cheese, and less sauce.
Caffe Emilia is located on First Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets. It was completely empty on Wednesday evening at 6:00, slightly less so on Saturday at 6:30. They also serve to-go coffees, pastries and sandwiches up front.