Cafe Spaghetti is a new restaurant in Brooklyn whose name tells you exactly what it’s all about — a neighbourhood standby where you can take kids and grandparents. Cafe Spaghetti is a neighbourhood standby where you can get sauce on your shirt and wave to flag down a waiter without anyone thinking you’re rude.
For Sal Lamboglia, the owner and chef of Cafe Spaghetti, the ideal seems to have been a small, family-run restaurant, with the husband in the kitchen, the wife at the entrance (or vice versa), and Louise’s son from down the block waiting tables. Cafe Spaghetti now operates under this model. Carbone is far more dramatic than Cafe Spaghetti, which has practically none of the “Goodfellas” atmosphere. It also costs the same amount, or maybe even less. The wine selection is decent, but no one will look down on you if you want to save a few dollars by sipping the house red with your sausage and peppers rather than ordering a bottle from the list. To the best of my knowledge, there is no such thing as a superior table.
Mr. Lamboglia worked as the head chef at Bar Primi in Manhattan for a total of seven years before deciding to go out on his own and create Cafe Spaghetti. Bar Primi, along with a number of other restaurants that came after Carbone, mined Southern Italian cooking in the form it had entered the American canon. They did this by re-Italianizing it from time to time, purchasing better ingredients when it mattered, and borrowing a trick or two from modern kitchen practise. All of these things were done to help make the case that those old dishes had been respectable all along.
Rice balls are the best way to experience the flavour of what you are about to read about at Cafe Spaghetti. They have been reimagined in the manner of cacio e pepe, a pasta dish whose signature combination of black pepper and Pecorino Romano cheese has lately crossed the species barrier and can be found in a variety of guises that do not include the consumption of pasta. The combination renders the rice balls forceful and even aromatic, but at the same time some sort of culinary wizardry renders them outrageously delicate. They are kept together under a fine coating of golden bread crumbs as if by sheer habit.
At the beginning of a meal at Cafe Spaghetti, however, there is also the option of ordering calamari that has been fried with both sweet and spicy peppers in the style that is traditional in Rhode Island. Spiedini alla Romana appear, too. This dish consists mostly of mozzarella cheese that has been fried in between two pieces of bread and then covered with a sauce that, depending on the kitchen, may take on a variety of forms. Tomatoes, anchovies, and a significant amount of lemon juice are used in Mr. Lamboglia’s version of this dish, which demands your attention. It seems to be a sandwich that was accidentally dropped into someone’s soup.
Pasta that is based on a seasonal ingredient is less reliable. When I visited Italy in June, my favourite dish was pasta e piselli, which consisted of small tubes filled with sweet green peas and served in a sauce made of onions and guanciale. On the other hand, the fava beans that were scattered around a plate of cheese ravioli were not convincing.
By offering just one main entrée every evening, Bar Primi utilised to convey the message that pasta was the primary focus of the restaurant. There will be three or four people in attendance at Cafe Spaghetti. It was a treat to be reminded of chicken Francese, and the tartness of the lemon-butter sauce dispelled any lingering doubts that the sentence included a knowing wink or sardonic jest. And it is remarkable how much mileage the eggplant Parmesan gets out of having the cheese in the front, which is something that I would not have thought was a smart idea.
The servers put a lot of emphasis on the tiramisu and mention that Mr. Lamboglia’s father, Tony, makes it every day at the restaurant in the same manner as he did in Bar Primi for the past several years. There is no sense in fighting against it, and there is no need to do so either. In contrast to some other tiramisus, which may be heavy and overly sugary, this version of the dessert is airy and delicate.
We probably don’t need to be too concerned about dishes like clams oreganata and chicken scarpariello going the way of the dodo any time soon now that there’s a whole movement centred on red sauce. However, there is a certain sort of Italian-American restaurant that is becoming extinct, and that is the mom-and-pop establishments. The reputations of these restaurants seldom extend more than one or two subway stops away. When one of them fails, it is fairly uncommon for it not to be replaced. Cafe Spaghetti captures the essence of the area, at least in the aspects that are significant to the community as a whole.