It’s always a good idea to have a backup plan. For sure if you’re dining without a reservation, but even if you’ve booked a table, an international superstar’s party could suddenly occupy half the space or a more typical visitor’s companion could arrive so inordinately late that it has a butterfly effect on the rest of the evening’s shift and even the lives of generations to come.
Cafe Spaghetti opened on the western edge of Carroll Gardens or the eastern reach of the Columbia Waterfront District, depending on realtor-speak whims, in May. There’s an abundance of other, older Italian restaurants all around the former neighborhood and a few in the latter, including charming, 118-year-old Ferdinando’s Focacceria across Union Street. Cafe Spaghetti is chef Sal Lamboglia’s first independent venture after terms at Bar Primi in the East Village and its related operations.
Inside, the people are happy. I think that this is because, for the past couple of months, it’s been a tough reservation to get. And, on a recent Friday evening, the quoted pop-in wait time was two hours. The exclusivity has cooled even more recently and tables are a little easier to come by at OK times on weeknights and further into earlier and later hours on weekends.
“Inside” is a metaphor. The majority of Cafe Spaghetti’s seats are situated in a street shed (25) and on the rear patio (40), with a tidy bar and smattering of two- and a few more-tops in between (about a dozen). The front’s more or less what you’d imagine, though handsomer than many similar setups. It approximates pre-vaccine pandemic, sit-down staging more successfully than a lot of buckle-your-seatbelt arrangements, even in sonorous proximity to the BQE. The long, narrow interior would be a terrible place to detail discrete schemes, but fine if you subscribe to the second half of the popular schoolteacher adage. And the manicured back, where umbrellas bloom like inverted petunias, is perfectly serviceable, save for one corner for four that visitors seem quick to vacate apparently due to air conditioner exhaust from a large unit overhead.
Are your friends, like…odd? About restaurants, I mean, because everybody’s odd about something. But are they oddly competitive about eating and drinking? Always first to ask if you’ve been here or there yet, or having some contrary opinion just for the sake of having a contrary opinion, or treating heat and its friend spice like a test for good taste? Well, you may order the spaghetti Pomodoro ($18) absent fear of scrutiny at Cafe Spaghetti. It is the titular item, after all, lightly coated in tomato’s rouge embrace with a kiss of Parmigiano and basil.
Pasta’s the thing to beat here, though secondi like chicken Milanese ($28) and eggplant Parm ($24) are also available. A fleeting lobster linguine special ($32) does right by the storied crustacean, preparing its meat to studious tenderness and coating the tangle of accompanying strands in a purposefully thin sauce that my pal thought had a hot kick and I did not and that’s just a palate for ‘ya. A rightfully permanent orecchiette with salsiccia and broccoli rabe ($21) gives the household staple aplomb, with the greens’ low-simmering, bright bitterness, savory sausage’s bite and little ears’ satisfying slight chew. When it’s easier to come by, this is the one you’ll come back to.
The detail’s in the details, and the ones that make a place good can go unnoticed in a climate of heightened expectations that hot commodities like this can create. Cafe Spaghetti’s food is quite nice, like a lot of places. It’s also notably welcoming once you’ve gotten through the door, theoretical or otherwise. Have you endured paltry wine pours lately? Me too, with sips that skew closer to tasting rations than at some actual tastings that I’ve been to. Here, wonderfully chilled Tuscan Chianti ($16 a glass) and a mood-making Piedmont rosé ($14) flow comfortably.
That bit of increasingly rare hospitality in a sub-4-oz pour world goes a long way. It’s an invitation to return, even just for a spell at the brief bar for antipasti like the superior cacio e pepe rice balls or homey meatballs in sugo that skew closer to what tops tables the fondly monikered “red sauce” spots in the area, whether you manage to slip in alone or you’re waiting for a late-arriving friend.
The Vibe: Summer in the city by way of a Brooklyn side street.
The Food: Italian, including a go-to orecchiette with salsiccia and broccoli rabe, nice specials like lobster linguine and crowd-pleasing meatballs.
The Drinks: A respectable wine list, plus beer and a few light mixed drinks.
Time Out Tip: Patches of ground in the back are graveled, but you can probably still navigate them in heels.
Cafe Spaghetti is located at 126 Union Street. It is open Tuesday-Saturday from 5pm to 10pm and Sunday from 5pm to 9pm.