One of the oldest tricks in the New York Italian-restaurant book is putting a mamma fresh from the Old Country in charge of the kitchen. Who can resist the idea of a sweet little old lady cooking the same dishes she cooked for her family back home? The only drawback to this arrangement, as anyone who remembers Pino Luongo’s Le Madri (the Mothers) can tell you, is that real live genuine Italian mammas aren’t so easy to come by. The mamma problem at Le Madri, if you recall, was that, upon closer inspection, some of the alleged mammas turned out to be mamma impostors. That’s not the case at Caffè Pane e Cioccolato, an innocuous Greenwich Village café that recently acquired the exquisite services of Giannina Tarquini, from Abruzzo. When Tarquini’s son, Massimiliano Di Matteo, a new partner, realized that the café’s generic Italian menu wasn’t exactly drawing raves, he did what any good Italian boy would do: He called home to ask his mother for help. “She’s my mom,” he explains. “She would do anything for me.” Besides leaving her home in Abruzzo, anything in this case included agreeing to make fresh pastas every day and cook at night for no pay (a work permit is under way), and, incredible as it may seem, moving into her son’s apartment . . . in Williamsburg! Thanks to the fact that every Saturday night since January, Pane e Cioccolato morphs into Caffè Taci—the reincarnation of a Morningside Heights institution best known as a training ground for aspiring opera singers—word is getting out. (The irksomely enthusiastic Rachael Ray filmed a TV segment last week.) Weekend talent aside, Tarquini is the undisputed diva in residence, beatifically patrolling the dining room, relishing compliments, and kissing customers on both cheeks (a makeshift response, since she doesn’t speak English). Her food speaks for her: an estimable stracciatella laced with dandelion and fluffy droplets of egg; an invigorating salt cod with roasted peppers; and her specialty: unusual pastas like timballo Abruzzese (a crêpe-based lasagne), dense, marjoram-tinged ravioli dolci, and pasta alla mugnaia—long, ropelike hand-rolled noodles in a beefy flavored tomato sauce. Although Tarquini began cooking as a teenager and worked in a hometown restaurant for fifteen years making just this kind of food, nothing prepared her for her New York debut. “She goes on TV,” says Di Matteo. “She feels like a star. She says, ‘Wow! I have to wait 55 years to become this.’ She loves it.”
Caffè Pane e Cioccolato
10 Waverly Pl., at Mercer St.