In 2011, Sardinian-born Daniela Useli opened a small storefront carryout on 36th Street in Hampden. Soon, the neighborhood was swooning over her baked goods like sfogliatelle, the flaky pastries sometimes known as "lobster tails," and cream-filled bomboloni doughnuts. Patrons folded themselves into the snug space's minimal tables and chairs to feast on arancini (rice balls) and lasagna. And more than a few carryout bags made their way home to surrounding neighborhoods (including mine).
When news came that Useli was going to move the business, known as Daniela Pasta and Pastries (822-24 W. 36th St.,  759-9320, danielaristorante.com) to a larger space a block or so east on the Avenue, for some of us, anticipation was tempered with just a dash of trepidation. How would the bakery-takeout business translate to a larger space with dinner table service? Would the quality of the food remain high when the quantities necessarily increased? And for those who had gotten used to seeing Daniela or her son, Stefano Tanda, behind the counter, would service still feel familiar and familial?
Based on a recent visit, the answers are positive all around. Useli, Tanda, and other relatives are still there to greet and care for visitors. They are quick to offer samples from the all-Italian wine list, describe Sardinian specialties, and encourage taking home leftovers. If Useli's storefront felt like walking into a family bakery, a visit to the restaurant, which opened in late spring, feels like you're eating in the family dining room (or on the front porch, as the case may be). In the two small dining areas, tables are cloth-covered and topped with small vases of flowers, but nothing is fancy or formal, precious or hip.
The same description suits the food. You begin the meal with a plate of pane carasau, a thin, cracker-like flatbread drizzled with olive oil, and can follow with one of several salads or antipasti, or, if you can't resist fried seafood (and I can't), a generous plate of fritto misto ($16.99). Here, shrimp, calamari, and—best of all—plump fillets of anchovies are fried in a nearly translucent batter that provides just a whisper of crunch. The seafood is served on a bed of iceberg lettuce accompanied by a few lemon wedges. It's simple, unpretentious, and completely satisfying.
Several of the entrees—particularly the pastas—reflect the influence of Useli's native Sardinia. Culurgiones, a Sardinian ravioli, are stuffed with potatoes and mint. Other pastas, like the fregula con cocciulas ($22.99) are seasoned with Sardinian saffron. Our server described the handmade fregula as similar to couscous, but I found the pasta more substantial and sturdier than tiny grains of couscous. Maybe a better way to think of it is as a smaller cousin to spaetzle. The pasta is bound together with garlic and sun-dried tomatoes and dotted with clams. It's a heady dish—not heavily sauced, but moist—if a little too salty. Lasagna verde al prosciutto cotto ($15.99), on the other hand, combines prosciutto and green noodles in a velvety amalgam of bechamel sauce and cheese. It is super rich, though light, and a decadent treat for the lactose tolerant.
Though I get the impression from observing other tables that Daniela's sells more pasta than anything else, the menu also offers several simply prepared meat and seafood entrees. The kitchen does not stint on the lemon in the scallopini di vitello limone ($19.99), and it gives a welcome brightness to what can often be an underwhelming veal cutlet. Accompanied by chunky, boiled potatoes napped in an herb-filled green sauce, the dish fills the need for homey comfort food.
Useli continues to offer a plethora of homemade sweets including the beloved sfogliatelle, cannoli, and strudel. Don't overlook the millefoglie al cioccolato ($6.99), rich layers of chocolate cream sandwiched between puff pastry, but consider sharing the generous portion.
Daniela's is a modest operation. Drinks are mostly confined to wine, soda, and coffee (though our server offered to dig up a Yuengling on the night we visited). The kitchen can take its time in sending out dishes, and you may wait to be seated if the servers are needed elsewhere. But the food and hospitality are honest and unpretentious. They make for a fine introduction to a lovely little slice of Sardinia.
Daniela Pasta and Pastries is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday – Sunday.