Cara Mia: Italian Food Like Grandma Made It
Sometimes you just want simple, good Italian food, without fuss. Cara Mia delivers just that. Located in the Theatre District, the trattoria is popular for its good food, good value, and comfortable setting.
There’s nothing remotely trendy about Cara Mia, but that’s also part of its charm. Photos of Italian film stars of years past adorn the brick walls, and plants add a nice touch of greenery. Besim Kukaj, the owner, said that Cara Mia embodies an old-time, nostalgic kind of feeling that reminds you of going to eat at your grandmother’s house.
And it’s likely that if you had an Italian grandmother, you’d find some of the same dishes she cooked, at Cara Mia. A section of the menu is devoted to homemade pastas, from the Tortellini alla Nonna, with peas, mushrooms, and cream, to the Tagliarelli alla Carbonara.
Besides the pastas, among popular dishes is the slow-cooked lamb shank, braised in an aromatic red wine sauce, which has a depth and warmth that’s perfect for fall time, so tender it just falls off the bone. It’s paired with soul-warming, creamy polenta, which is a nice complement to soak up the sauce. If the polenta is not enough, reach for bread, as I did, to mop up the last drop of sauce.
The dishes come from all over Italy, and seafood is featured as well, including branzino, sauteed with white wine and served with fresh spinach; as well as various pastas with seafood such as the Linguine alle Vongole (with clams) or con Calamari Fra Diavolo, with calamari in a spicy tomato sauce.
Prices range from about $15.95 to $24.95, with a very popular theater prix fixe at $15.95—tables are often packed at night. The lunch prix fixe is $8.95. Cara Mia also offers $1 oysters and 2-for-1 sangria.
Tried and True
Cara Mia has been here for about 20 years; and the chef for about just as long. But it really picked up last year, when Kukaj took over and introduced a tried-and-tested menu from another of his restaurants, Intermezzo.
Besides Intermezzo, Kukaj, 33, also owns a number of other restaurants in Manhattan: Lemon Jungle, Maria Pia, Il Bastardo, Arte Café, Gallo Nero, and Bocca di Bacco.
The span of his career is remarkable, when you consider that 13 years ago, he started out as a dishwasher.
Kukaj emigrated in 2000 from Montenegro, which used to be part of the former Yugoslavia. The country counts about only 600,000 inhabitants.
He started working on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, first as a dishwasher. It wasn’t long until he moved quickly through other jobs, in a matter of months: busboy, runner, and waiter. Within a year he was made captain. He stayed in the position for three more years, saving his money, until he took the plunge and opened his first restaurant, Intermezzo, in Chelsea.
Hours were long, and he consistently worked seven days a week—which he still frequently does—but he stayed persistent about reaching his goals. “I knew that one day I would succeed and have my own place,” he said. His latest one, La Carbonara, just opened earlier this month on 14th Street. As with Cara Mia, he is bringing the menu from Intermezzo, which has been a time-tested pleaser.