193 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn Heights
Rating: Four out of 5 L's
Italian is spoken here. A woman in pink lipstick and chef’s whites chats with a silver-haired customer about the house-made arancini—rice balls. The warm, sing-songy tones of their Sicilian dialect overpower the nasally woes of the woman who’s been complaining about her co-op board for the past twenty minutes. If I had taken Italian in high school, I might be able to join the conversation and speak of the Sicilian village where my great-grandparents grew up. But I took Spanish— more practical, according to my dad—so all I can do is sit quietly and sip my pitch-perfect cappuccino, served in a big, cozy teacup-shaped mug with a sprinkle of cocoa powder and a decadent layer of creamy foam. On a stool in the front window, I imagine staring into the Ionian Sea rather than the traffic on Atlantic Avenue.At first glance, Catania looks like another hohum pizzeria—the glass display cases, the oven behind the counter, the limited seating, the drink fridge, the on-site ATM—but this humble Sicilian café deserves a closer look. A glass jar on the counter is filled with fresh graffa, or Sicilian donuts. In the glass case, puffed and crusted cornetti, Sicilian croissaints, are piled beside an iris al cioccolato—a brioche-like poof filled with chocolate cream that’s as thick and rich as Nutella. The deliriously chewy almond paste cookies— pasta di mandorla—beat the heck out of my longtime favorites at Monteleone’s on Court Street (though they’re considerably more expensive at Catania—$1 each, or fifteen for $10). The treccina, a flaky twist with an almond-apricot glaze, is on the dry side, though a little card in the display case marks it as “Chef Mimmo’s favorite.” Mimmo, like the rest of the staffers—Pippo, Flavio, and Salvo—has a black-and-white glamour shot and Q&A posted on the restaurant’s website (I love these people), letting us know that he’s a third-generation Italian baker who’s only been in New York for two years.
Their savory snacks are proof that Sicilian fast food is infinitely more delicious than ours. Order anything off the tavola calda (hot table) menu— the cipollina, a light puff pastry envelope richly stuffed with scallions, ham, tomato, and cheese, was a treat. On the side, you need the caponata— a dish that’s too often composed of dry, flavorless eggplant cubes is deeply sweet and sour here, enriched by potatoes, plump golden raisins and peppers. I’m pretty sure I could eat a bucket of it. I mean, caponata is my birthright, no? Someday, I’ll make it to the old country, but until then, just meet me at Catania.