Gaia's fresh, simple Italian sandwiches and salads have made a lunchtime regular of Lau. This casual downstairs café on Houston Street cooks pretty much everything from scratch, including the crisp, flavorful flatbread used in panini like the Elegante, which marries agreeably salty bresaola (air-dried cured beef) with goat cheese and black pepper. (Bresaola also turns up as carpaccio with Parmesan, arugula, and a squeeze of lemon that "really kicks it up a notch.")
Other sandwiches Lau has enjoyed are the Montanaro (speck, Taleggio, vegetables), the Milanese (fried chicken cutlet, pesto, tomato), and the elegant, satisfying Bubi (mozzarella di bufala, tomato, basil). A winner among the salads is arugula with cherry tomatoes, pesto, and Parmesan.
Lau has stuck mostly to the sandwiches, but the menu offers heartier fare as well, including pastas and other hot dishes like spicy beans with sausage. Vegetarians will also find numerous choices. And for something sweet, consider house-made baked treats like angel wings or brioches with orange marmalade or Nutella.
A large part of Gaia's appeal is its owner, a charming Milan native who's been part of the rotating kitchen crew at Enoteca Maria, a hound favorite on Staten Island. Here she does all the cooking herself. "She clearly takes pride in her food," says Lau, "and I really like that."
Gaia [Lower East Side]
251 E. Houston Street (between Norfolk and Suffolk streets), Manhattan