Café Alaia is full of surprises. Tucked into a bank of nondescript retail and dining establishments on a commercial strip of Garth Road in Scarsdale, Café Alaia is an anomaly: It serves flavorful food in a humble environment.A Scarsdale trattoria has the makings of a true Italian star.
Owner Vincenzo Alaia hails from a suburb of Naples — fiefdom of the famous San Marzano tomatoes, so he knows how to guide his kitchen to dish up luscious tomato sauces. His café reminded me of one my husband and I found in a small outpost in Palermo when a woman, brilliant sunlight glistening on her white hair like polished silver, fox links draping over her shoulders in 80° heat, stepped out from a trattoria that looked like it had been tested by the passage of decades. I asked her if the food was good. She put three cupped fingers to her lips and threw the place a kiss! We went in. Mama Mia, what good food!
Like that small restaurant, Café Alaia serves generally tasty food, some of which is excellent. Branzino, filleted from a whole fish that has been dewed with white wine, lemon juice, olive oil, and parsley, was simple perfection. Tender ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta were bathed in melted butter infused with woodsy sage leaves. Pappardelle, made in-house like the ravioli, were tossed with a thick, tomatoey lamb ragù. The Caesar salad, prepared without anchovies, was a nest of delicate greens bussed by a shower of Parmesan cheese.
Like that restaurant in Sicily, Café Alaia is stripped naked of decor. This is a house of wooden floors, tables, chairs, and overhead beams. Two long shelves, high up on one wall, are crowded with wine bottles while a contemporary, poster-size painting in flashy orange and black adorns the opposite wall. Off in one corner, there’s a bar meant for two, but the four stools bellied up to it make it too tight for comfort. In the evening, instrumental Italian music (a bit more rock at lunchtime) trickles in over the sound system as four waiters constantly check every table (at lunchtime on a snowy day, one young woman handled the few occupied tables).
On the night we visited, Alaia strode up and down the center divide between two rows of tables that accommodate about 40 people. Sometimes he would stop at a table and say hello; most of the time, he was scrutinizing if the water glasses were full, asking if the patrons were pleased with everything.
Forget your diet and pick up a thick slice of the warm sesame Italian bread to dip into herbed tomato sauce. Like every other diner in Café Alaia, you’ll ask for more bread and more of that addictive sauce. Then have eggplant soufflé, one of the best dishes on the menu: a nicely seasoned purée of eggplant parmigiano turned into a soufflé with eggs and creamy Burrata cheese in the mix. Cannellini beans and grilled shrimp, an Italian classic, was nicely balanced between texture and taste. Slivers of garlic added to the complexity of the dish, but you would be hard-pressed to flesh out a piece. Meatballs in rich gravy were enhanced by ricotta cheese. While these dishes are commonplace in many Italian restaurants, Alaia’s renditions pack so much more flavor into the familiar comfort foods of the homeland.
Unfortunately, there were some miscues that need not have happened. The green beans that shared the plate with the branzino tasted old and overcooked. In a first for us, the trattoria told us they’d run out of olive oil, meaning a number of dishes including grilled octopus, calamari, Cornish hen, and chicken cutlet, were unavailable. Couldn’t an employee have run out to purchase a bottle? And while we like our pasta al dente, it was difficult to enjoy linguine with clams when the linguine needed another minute or two of cooking. As for desserts, some were good — the pear tart was nicely turned out — but the zabaglione was too eggy to be pleasant.
Alaia’s wine list is all-Italian, with a wonderful selection of Amarone, Super Tuscan, Moscato, and Barbera, as well as familiar Chianti, Pinot Grigio, and Gavi.
All in all, Café Alaia is a delight. Time should only correct the missteps.
66 Garth Rd, Scarsdale
Freelance writer Rosemarie T. Anner was the executive and food editor of Greenwich Magazine for 21 years.