The first clue that Gioia Mia is an authentic Italian restaurant is not the antipasto della casa, with prosciutto and fresh mozzarella, or the perfect preparation of rigatoni all'amatriciana. It is the smiling, talkative maitre d', Luca, who immediately befriends you at the door, and in his boisterous Italian accent, tells you about his hometown of Lecce, near the heel of the boot.
The chef, Fabricio Pace, is from the town of Amatrice, near Rome, also the birthplace of pasta amatriciana. It's no wonder his version ($10) is so good: al dente tubes of rigatoni, with bacon, pecorino and hot pepper in a light sauce of fresh tomatoes. It appears on many menus of Italian restaurants throughout the city, but "you can't get it anywhere like this," according to Albanian co-owner Peter Kokalari. After just a few bites of this dish that sounds and looks so simple, we had to agree.
Before partaking in this pasta epiphany, don't overlook the antipasti. Some are trattoria-traditional, like the antipasto della casa for two ($18) or grilled vegetables ($8). Other choices show a bit more sophistication, like diver scallops ($15), pan seared until caramelized on all sides, surrounding a timbale of roasted eggplant and red peppers.
The primi piatti are all staple pasta and risotto dishes on menus in Italy, and prepared just as well here, with no fusion flourishes. The couple beside us enjoyed a sampler of three different choices: gnocchi with a fragrant gorgonzola sauce; penne all'arrabbiata, a spicy tomato sauce; and of course, the amatriciana. We ogled their heaping plates, divided neatly into thirds, two red and one white.
If you dine in true Italian style and order both antipasti and primi beforehand, you're likely to be quite full once the secondi arrive. But Chef Pace delivers outstanding meat and fish, so sharing an antipasto or pasta might be the best route. The filetto di vitello Gioia Mia ($24) features sublimely tender medallions of veal, each topped with a melting sheet of fresh mozzarella. Portobello and shitake mushrooms and a centerpiece of mashed potatoes round out the beautifully presented plate. The striped bass ($24) is more elegant than typical trattoria fare, with three crispy basil-encrusted filets served over a red-pepper puree.
With all of the Italian trattorias popping up around the city, the presence of a wine list sets Gioia Mia apart. Most of its competitors, like Porcini just across the street, are BYOBs, but here, you can order a glass of Chianti ($6.50) or have a cocktail mixed at the full bar up front. The room could use a little something to add warmth to its spare cream-colored walls. But with soft Italian music playing in the background and regulars getting up to greet friends at other tables, it's easy to settle in at this neighborhood spot.