There are some betrayals that you don’t recover from. In 1204, the armies of the Fourth Crusade were camped outside the gates of Constantinople, hopped up on religion and dreams of conquest. When the Latin generals realized they were a bit short on cash, they turned their men loose. The Sack of Constantinople stripped the city of its treasures, leaving a battered, beaten wreck in its place from which it was unable to recover before the Ottoman Turks came knocking in the 1400s.
The Sack of Constantinople may be 800 years in the past, but the psychic scars remain. That’s the only explanation I can find for why a major Mediterranean metropolis is so lacking in good Italian cuisine. Can you think of any other reason? I mean, you can find world class, authentic Italian food in the jungles of Vietnam and the hinterlands of Oklahoma; I can attest to both. But somehow, Istanbul, alone of the world’s great cities, has little in the way of great cucina italiana.
The situation is not completely hopeless, though. In the very heart of the Istanbul, in what was once the Genoese colony of Galata, one finds Café Italiano. Right off of Taksim Square, across from Gezi Park, Café Italiano is a pleasant respite in the wasteland of mediocre Bolognese and uninspired lasagna. The menu hits all the standards one would expect to find on a mid-range Italian eatery. There are no regional specialties, a demerit, but also no attempts at fusion, a bonus.
While the menu might lack diversity, Café Italiano makes up for it by being tasty. The lasagna is usually excellent (one a recent visit, I found it a bit under the high bar they’d set on previous visits), the best ‘standard’ one I’ve had in Istanbul; nearby Zencefil makes a vegetarian lasagna that is so good, you have to find an Italian grandma, get adopted by one of her children, and slap her. Many of the other dishes are also quite decent. The carbonara hits the right notes. The Bolognese is just sweet enough to make it pop. A Roman might sniff at the tiramisu but it’s really not bad.
Café Italiano is not fine dining, and it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s a good place to get good Italian food, have a beer or a modest glass of wine before painting the town red on a Saturday evening. Get the lasagna, pair it with an imported beer, and wash it down with tiramisu or dessert crepes and then head out into the bustle of Istiklal. You’ve earned it. Put those Byzantine ghosts to bed.