Last week, on an exceedingly pleasant summer afternoon Gothamist chatted with Gaia Bagnasacco on a bench outside the new location of her namesake Italian cafe, which she opened on East Third Street at the beginning of June after an absence of more than two years from the neighborhood.

Chatting was just one of several things commanding Bagnasacco's considerable energy and attention. Gaia, which is what everyone calls her, is an irresistible presence who warmly greets passersby, hugs longtime regulars, and already seems to have gathered a new set of repeat customers at the new spot.

And her instinct to be of service to her neighbors means that she had no qualms about getting up mid-interview to prepare a plate of free food for a hungry friend, or give away a large bottle of juice to a visibly vitamin-deprived stranger who was swaying before the menu.

Images of food and decor in an Italian restaurant

Gaia Bagnasacco outside her new home in East Third Street

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Gaia Bagnasacco outside her new home in East Third Street
Scott Lynch/Gothamist

"Gaia was created to feed and take care of the community," Bagnasacco said. "Fresh food, healthy food, should be accessible to everybody, it's not just a fancy thing. Let's try to feed everybody."

As such, Gaia Italian Cafe is not an ordinary restaurant, and over the years the praise she and her longtime chef Kevin Espinal have received has been misinterpreted by some, who showed up at the old East Houston Street spot expecting a formal setting, and instead were handed their dishware at the counter and told to find (or wait for) a seat wherever they could.

Confusion over seating is a non-issue at the new Gaia, because there isn't any. Yes, Bagnasacco, the tireless hostess, runs a takeout-only business now — it's also lunch-only to start — but picnic squats abound nearby.

The Loisaida (Lower East Side) is thick with community gardens, including one right across the street that has several tables (be clean and considerate if you're sitting here for lunch), and Tompkins Square Park is just a few blocks away. While Gaia's to-go packaging may not be slick — whatever Bagnasacco has on the shelves, is what you're getting, even if it doesn't quite close properly — the food is always made with love.

Images of food and decor in an Italian restaurant

Peek inside the famous Meat Lasagna

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Peek inside the famous Meat Lasagna
Scott Lynch/Gothamist

Gaia's new kitchen is tiny, so the menu here is much shorter than you may remember from the East Houston days. Bagnasacco's Meat Lasagna is on it though, and it's as homey and satisfying as ever. The Spicy Bean and Sausage platter makes for a hearty, lively meal, and the Focaccia with Cheese was topped with an absurdly generous amount of artichoke hearts and shredded prosciutto, was superb.

Always check the specials, too. The heavily peppered Salmon Cannelloni was bulging with big chunks of baked fish. Several vegetarian options are available daily, including Gaia's beloved Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi. And for dessert, don't skip the Rainbow Cookies, which are aggressively almondy and moist nearly to the point of juiciness.

Images of food and decor in an Italian restaurant

Rainbow Cookies

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Rainbow Cookies
Scott Lynch/Gothamist

Prices are kept artificially low, with nothing, not even the lasagna or the salmon, costing more than ten bucks. Bagnasacco said chef Espinal earns enough of a salary to support his family, but she takes home next to nothing, to ensure accessibility to all in the community.

"My mom thinks that I'm crazy, my brother thinks that I'm crazy," she said. "But that's the only way inside my heart I want to do it. If I had to bring the lasagna to $15, yeah we will make more money. But inside of me I will not be happy."

And though the journey to East Third Street was not an easy one for Bagnasacco — a neighbor's "harassment" forced her to abandon the lease on East Houston, the death of her father exacted a heavy toll, and a promising spot on Essex Street turned out to be a "terrible" situation — for now, at least, Gaia is home.

"It's a great sensation to be back feeding people. It's really something that I missed for almost two years," she said. "New York is a tough city, it doesn't give you second chances too much. But when I stepped into this space, the energy was meeting my energy. I feel that the neighborhood is very kind. I feel at home here."

Gaia Italian Cafe is located at 226 East 3rd Street, between Avenues B and C, and is currently open on Tuesday through Friday from 11:00 a.m to 3:00 p.m. (646-350-3977; gaiaitaliancafe.com)