Italian cuisine goes sideways in the best possible way at NYC’s Café Mars

Café Mars brings fun, twisty spins on classic Italian food to Gowanus. Photo credit: Jenny Huang/The New Yorker
Negroni gelatin-encased olives on a white plate drizzled with olive oil at NYC restaurant Café Mars

Wanting to open his own restaurant since the fifth grade, chef Paul D’Avino achieved his dream in 2023 with Café Mars, which has turned into one of the city’s coolest restaurants right now. 

Café Mars has little in common with most other Italian restaurants in the city. It’s neither rustic nor farmhouse-inspired, nor is it lean and clean in that spare Mid-Mod style that’s a calling card of late. It’s bold and bright with a Memphis Milano-inspired design and a crush of bold primary colors. It shines like a lighthouse on a relatively quiet stretch of Third Avenue in Gowanus.

And more than its viral dishes (the jell-olives lit up social media last summer), it’s genuinely one of the most inventive new spots to drop on the restaurant scene in recent years. Read on for five reasons why you’ll want to jump on a booking right now.

1. Service so next-level it won a special MICHELIN award

Café Mars is known for its one-of-a-kind hospitality. Photo credit: Nick Glimenakis

Have a seat at one of the restaurant’s booths, and you’ll immediately get to pick a vintage cordial glass from a handwoven chestnut basket for an aperitivo. “We pour a little Prosecco or a non-alcoholic sparkling beverage,” says service director Madalyn Summers, who won a MICHELIN award for outstanding service last year. “It’s a way to welcome our guests and make them feel at home.”

It’s only going to feel more homey from here on out. Reach under your table, pull out all the silverware that’s in a wooden drawer, and pass it to your companions. “It feels more communal and intimate,” Summers says.

Once your order is in, the cooks will run it out to your table directly from the kitchen. “It gives them a chance to see where the food is going and to explain the dish and interact with diners,” Summers says.

After dinner, you’ll get your check with a crystal-cut candy dish full of strawberry, butterscotch, and coffee sweets. “We fill it with all the candies we remember our grandmothers having in the candy jar,” Summers says. “It’s a way of sending people off with a sense of warmth and love.”

2. Food that’s pushing boundaries in the most fun ways

Café Mars does a take on chicken parmesan, but with pork ribs. Photo credit: Scott Lynch

D’Avino’s quirky menu is a reflection of his stints at superstar spots like wd~50 and Aska. It’s also an ode to Italy but with a global lens. “There is an established forward thinking in Italian culture in design, fashion, and cars, but in food it’s always been ‘we cook the way that nona did it,’” D’Avino says. “I think it can still be fun and delicious even if it’s not quite that way.”

That means fluke crudo cured in aged parmesan (a revolt against the cardinal rule of not mixing seafood and cheese in Italy) and chicken parmesan reimagined as bone-in pork ribs breaded in housemade Progresso-style bread crumbs and smothered in mozzarella and red sauce.

Oh, and those viral jell-olives—D’Avino wanted to transform the humble snack into a full-on dish. “Nothing is a gimmick,” D’Avino says. “We do things because we think that they are cool and interesting and fun and visually striking.”

3. The drinks keep up with the fun, too

A cocktail topped with ice and a cocktail umbrella at NYC restaurant Café Mars
This Tiki-inspired cocktail is full of Sicilian ingredients. Photo credit: Patrick Dolande

Cocktails similarly straddle old and new Italy with the menu split into two sections named “new tails” and “old tails.” Go for the Tiki-inspired Isola Bella among the newer ones; it’s a little taste of Sicily with pistachio, orange, and grappa. 

Even the classics have twists, like the manhattan that’s actually called Little Italy and comes with a splash of the Italian bitter aperitif Cynar. 

4. Interiors that are super trippy

The interior of NYC restaurant Café Mars featuring yellow and white booths, wooden chairs, and a white ceiling
D’Avino was primarily influenced by the Italian Memphis Milano design movement to create Café Mars’s interiors. Photo credit: Nick Glimenakis

Lemon-colored cutouts framing the original brick of the building, bar stools with hot-pink legs, colorful ceramic plates and bowls—Café Mars is a wild and wacky funhouse, and it’s very much intentional.

D’Avino’s far-ranging influences included the Memphis Milano movement, Art Nouveau, and even Hobbiton (yes, the Lord of the Rings one). “You don’t see this sort of design here in New York, but in Italy it’s everywhere,” D’Avino says. “A restaurant is much more than food.”

5. Nearly everything at the restaurant has a personal connection to the chef

A portrait of a man named Domenico D’Avino, who is the great-grandfather of Paul D’Avino, the owner of NYC restaurant Café Mars
Paul D’Avino’s great-grandfather Domenico D’Avino moved to a place across from Café Mars in 1901. Photo credit: provided by Paul D’Avino, credit unknown

Nearly everything you can think of at Café Mars has a personal anecdote attached to it. Mars is D’Avino’s son’s middle name, the chestnut basket is made by an 87-year-old artisan from the same Italian village as D’Avino’s great-grandfather, and perhaps most special is the fact that his great-grandfather once lived across from Café Mars.

Domenico D’Avino immigrated to Gowanus from Tramonti in 1901, when this part of Brooklyn was a thriving Italian enclave. The restaurant is sort of a homecoming for D’Avino, “the perfect place to open an Italian restaurant,” he says.

When to go

Summers says the best time to score a reservation is either 5:30 pm or 9 pm, while 6:30 pm to 8 pm tend to be the busiest times. The restaurant is open Wednesday through Saturday 5:30 pm to 9 pm (9 pm being the last reservation).

Known for her pioneering food blog, The Strong Buzz, Andrea Strong has been writing about restaurants, chefs, and life around the table for the past 25 years. She lives, eats, and loads and unloads the dishwasher in Brooklyn. Follow her on instagram @strongbuzz.

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