When it comes to standing out in a sea of Italian restaurants, Café Alaia’s Nancy Rosner and Vincenzo Alaia look inward for inspiration. “I don’t look at what other restaurants are doing here,” says Alaia, who was born and raised in Naples. “I try to deliver what my parents, family, and culture gave me. It is traditional, simple Italian food.” So far, that mantra seems to be working. Here, Alaia outlines four keys to the restaurant’s success.
“The bread really has to be outstanding,” says Alaia, who uses his mother’s recipe to make perfectly chewy, crispy batons of focaccia. “It’s the first thing that’s on the table. If that’s not good, you’ve already started with the wrong food.”
“Our menu includes the most popular dishes you’d expect to have in Italy — Bolognese, pesto, and linguine with clams. We only have Italian wine, Italian beers. When an Italian restaurant has other stuff, you lose your identity. That’s why we don’t do brunch. For me, brunch is an American thing. I’m Italian; I didn’t grow up with that culture of brunch, so how can I possibly deliver?”
Left: a pear tart; Right: owners Vincenzo Alaia and Nancy Rosner.
“For the food to be good, you have to use the right products. The tomatoes we import from Italy are DOP-certified, and they cost a fortune. We use pasta from Gragnano, which is recognized worldwide as the best because it’s made in the old method. The cheeses, the prosciutto, the extra-virgin olive oil, the olives for the martinis, they all come from Italy.”
“We didn’t want that old-fashioned look. We decided no tablecloths, but we chose nice glasses and silverware. The place is simple and reflects the simplicity of the food, but that doesn’t mean the service doesn’t reach a certain quality.”