There’s a phenomenon I call “the bubble,” where a restaurant’s food, drink, service and atmosphere are executed so seamlessly that you forget about everything beyond your table. This immersion is what hospitality professionals strive for when they subtly dim the lights every hour, adjust the music with the energy of the room, coordinate their entrances and exits.

During a recent visit, Gioia put me in the bubble. I almost forgot to take notes or photos, not that I would have needed them to remember the experience. This new upscale casual restaurant from Tim Cabral (Ordinary), Avi Szapiro (ROÌA) and their business partners feels both easy and refined. Amid sleek contemporary touches, rounded edges on warm reclaimed wood create a softness that makes you want to cozy up a for another drink. Painted portraits of the entrepreneurs’ mothers help make it feel personal. Flashy curved cutouts glow between the gentle green tiles of the backbar, while a library ladder draws the eye to upper shelves of well-curated wines and spirits.

I started the night there, at the bar. Recognizing some of New Haven’s best veteran bartenders, led here by beverage director Michela Zurstadt, I sipped on an Americana ($13), a dry and bright version of the classic Americano featuring lemon-infused bianco vermouth and strawberry-infused Campari. I then moved to a table and the Baccala Arancini ($13), whose light, well-cooked cod outweighed the risotto, a squeeze of lemon over the top brightening and integrating the aioli. But the culinary team led by Szapiro really began to shine with the simply named Mussels ($17). Cooked into a broth with N’duja and blistered peppers, the mussels were perfectly tender, the broth savory and deep.

My excellent server, Gabriela, then helped me choose a few pastas. “I dream about our Bolognese,” she gushed, and sure enough, the dish ($15/28), featuring house-made tagliatelle, was light and bright and homey. A white wine base lent that lightness, and a dash of nutmeg brought me right back to my mother’s kitchen. Somehow, the Pera Vita ($13), a tequila-based cocktail with spiced pear, ginger, cider and lemon, was a perfect pairing.

The Gnocchi Cacio e Pepe ($15/28), meanwhile, was heavenly. The gnocchi were pillowy, and the simple elegance of the pecorino and pepper sauce was elevated by the rough cut of the peppercorn, a lesson Szapiro learned from an interview with Alice Waters. Some bites, the pepper would lead, while others, it waited for the finish, supplying variety without losing cohesion.

I finished the night with the Fig Leaf Panna Cotta ($12), another impressive show of flavor and technique. The fig leaf emulsion in olive oil was savory and delicate, and the warm honey-roasted figs were a beautiful balance to the cool and creamy panna cotta, the best I’ve had outside Italy. Salted pistachios were a delightful final touch.

The larger genius of the menu is that any of its dishes, from wood-fired entrees to thick, focaccia-style pizza, feel like they could go well together. Likewise, the space itself, what co-owner Cabral calls “a little compound of sorts,” thoughtfully connects diverse elements. From the small in-house grocery featuring Italian specialty goods, to the gelato window around the corner, to the rooftop set to open in the spring, Gioia is a welcome splash of color and creativity on old-school Wooster Street.

Gioia Cafe & Bar
150 Wooster St, New Haven (map)
(475) 250-3451
Tues-Thurs 4-9pm, Fri-Sat 4-10pm, Sun 4-8pm

Written by Anna Konya. Images 1 (featuring Avi Szapiro and Tim Cabral), 2, 3 and 4 photographed by Monique Chaisavan Sourinho. Image 5 photographed by Emily Glenn. All images provided courtesy of Gioia.

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