What is the biggest culinary taboo committed by a classic trattoria?
Pizza dough that has been kneaded by someone other than a 70-year old Italian nonno? Linguine that has been rolled out with something other than a worn out crank pasta machine? Or Bolognese sauce that came from a glass jar? All valid answers, but for me, it’s the forgoing traditional and staple Italian dishes.
The sad truth is that the days of Little Italy ristorantes with red and white checkerboard tablecloths and Chiantis stored on wall shelves are numbered. With rising rent and overhead, remaining trattoria owners are frantic to find a way to deviate themselves from their neighboring competitors in order to gain the attention of prospective customers.
Fortunately, Fiat Cafe stands in defiance of the contemporary, and continues churn out plates of traditional linguine with white clam sauce, cavatelli with broccoli di rabe, and bucatini amatriciana. From inside out, this little cafe screams Old Italy. Guests are warmly greeted by soft vinyl quality instrumental musica. “Cozy” is an understatement as this cafe seats no greater than a dozen people. A trip to the bathroom will entail most guests to suck in their belly and pull in their chairs, or just completely stand up.
A slender, poised waitress navigates through the crevices to graciously drop plates of cheese, paninis, and pasta. I’ve tried several pastas as paninis on the Fiat menu, but there were two dishes in a league of their own.
Linguine Fini with baby clams
The Linguine Fini with baby clams, pancetta, garlic, and crushed red pepper is my favorite dish. The items on the menu don’t have a particular name, just the pure description of what is used in the dish and how it is prepared. The linguine is firm, but soft enough to absorb the sodium-rich clam sauce. The baby clams are succulent and gushing with a salty and slightly metallic brine. Immaculate is the word that best describes everything on the plate. This is a plain case of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Fiat lives by this mantra.
Pappardelle pasta with shiitake
When I’m in the mood for something a bit more hearty, I go for the pappardelle pasta with shiitake, oysters, cremini mushrooms, duck confit, ragout with truffle oil. The noodles are broader than linguine, approximately an inch in width. The size of the pappardelle helps the heavy protein adhere to the pasta. The ragout is thick, peppery, and sweet. The shredded duck confit (cooked in its own fat) is piquant and its savoriness is enhanced by the earthy undertone from the truffle oil. And lastly, the springy shiitake and cremini mushrooms are a surprising treat to bite. Every ingredient is quintessential in this tasteful piece.
Fiat Cafe is a dying breed of traditional trattorias that genuinely understand there are certain things you don’t mess around with. I get it, restaurants want their own fingerprint in the culinary world. But sacred dishes such as the eggplant parmigiana and veal francese should never be transmuted beyond recognition. Understood that no one recipe is exactly the same, however, each of these dishes should be similar enough to trace back to a common lineage. Fiat Cafe, hidden gem. Go.
Make a reservation if you plan to come here for dinner. This place is packed no matter what day of the week you wish to go.
I recommend the country bread with anchovies or tomatoes garlic, parsley and olive oil bruschetta crostini as the appetizer.
Ask the waiter/waitress about the specials. They have some great seasonal items.
You guessed it, Cafe Fiat got its name from the Italian Fiat automobile makers. Several of the toy cars they have aligned against the walls in the cafe are all Fiat cars.