It’s Friday evening in New York City, and summer has arrived. Windows and doors are flung wide, café tables are filled and bar stools are occupied. The sun, also having gotten the memo, is starting its descent toward the Hudson. And along the city streets and inside glowing bar windows, the clink of ice hitting glass, the snap of a cork popping, the splash of bittersweet liqueur and crackle of seltzer and prosecco is the background music to New Yorkers freshly clocked out, claiming their summer Friday.
On Macdougal Street, the scene behind one basil-colored façade is livelier than the others. Once the de-facto clubhouse of a vibrant Italian-American community, Caffé Dante—a Greenwich Village stronghold since 1915—remains a cornerstone of the neighborhood’s nightlife. In its new incarnation, aperitivo culture has been introduced by a team determined to maintain the space’s heritage: in the bright, airy space, Aperol Spritzes and other iconic Italian cocktails grace the tables, coupled with the old-school hospitality of its progenitor and a full menu of traditional snacks. So successful is Dante’s endeavor to translate la dolce vita of aperitivo hour to an American audience that a sister concept, Dante at Genuine, recently opened in nearby Little Italy.
That cultural pause that takes place in the moment between end of day and start of the evening, the Italian ritual of the aperitivo is defined in its home country by the ever-present Aperol Spritz—the now-quintessential combination of prosecco, Aperol and soda water. During golden hour, the bubbly orange cocktail can be spotted on tables in piazzas across the country astride plates of small snacks intended to whet the appetite and signal the end of the workday.
The custom is now popping up Stateside, appropriated by bartenders aiming to bring the delights of the aperitivo moment and its attendant Aperol Spritz to the U.S. In return, guests have fully embraced the trend—inspiring the current wave of Italian-inspired drinking seen in cities on both coasts.
In New York, places like Vini e Fritti are using the aperitivo format to draw in both locals and out-of-towners. At the Italian-centric bar in sleepy Midtown East—a quarter often abandoned to the rhythms of office workers and grab-and-go desk lunches— Friday evenings capture a perfect mix of both demographics. At a sprawling marble bar like something out of a grand 19th-century Torinese café, uber-traditional small plates (crispy artichokes, a paper cone of fried seafood, salumi with grissini and Castelvetrano olives) are partnered with a frequently rotating menu of spritzes and excellent sparkling wines. Friendly and well-educated bartenders hold forth on everything from Sicilian amaro to chamomile-infused Campari, all while mixing up a dozen classically bittersweet Aperol spritzes.
Across the East River at Williamsburg’s Donna, a whitewashed, tiki-esque establishment that’s both whismical and stylish, Aperol Spritzes are equally beloved and backed: Here, you’ll find them being poured long after summer Fridays have ended. But perhaps no bar has done more to champion spritz culture and seamlessly blend it with New York’s happy hour sensibility than Nitecap in the Lower East Side. In this subterranean cocktail joint, spritzes—a whole dedicated section of them—have featured on the menu since the bar’s opening in 2014. The classic Aperol Spritz serve is always available on request, but, with its balance of high-low pop cultural references plus inventive renditions on what “spritz” can mean, Nitecap’s menu is also shot through with unexpected flavor combinations and provocative names (see the Turbo Lover: Aperol, Ancho Reyes, Cardamaro, coffee, bitters and tonic).
Menus like Nitecap’s are evidence that the classic Aperol Spritz has settled in most comfortably in New York, becoming iconic enough in its own right that it’s paved the way for countless variations. A town whose cocktail culture was once defined by brooding interiors, hidden doorways and strong, stirred cocktails has done an about-face, drowning that shadowy image with prosecco, the iconic orange liqueur and soda. Perhaps more than any other American city, New York has fully embraced Italy’s spritz life and possibly even furthered it—all while forging an effervescent identity all its own.
Dante | 79-81 Macdougal Street
The scene: A sunny, bright space full of subway tile and dark wood that transitions into a candlelit dinner spot once the sun goes down. Lively and stylish after-work crowd plus cocktail nerds plus neighborhood locals eating pasta and drinking wine.
Go for: The Aperol Spritz, of course. But also the vermouth service and Campari Negronis.
Dante at Genuine | 191 Grand Street
The scene: Similar to Dante, but with a few more tourists. It is Little Italy, after all.
Go for: Aperitivo hour—that liminal time when the day is winding down but night has not yet arrived. Pair an Aperol Spritz with a round of oysters, an order of flatbread and a selection of salumi.
Vini e Fritti | 30 E. 30th Street
The scene: Lots of flashing brass, white marble and gilded mirrors. A post-work happy hour crowd that transitions into hotel guests (it’s in the same building as The Redbury Hotel) and in-the-know barflies.
Go for: The rotating menu of spritzes, an excellent Champagne list and the addictive fried snacks.
Nitecap | 151 Rivington Street
The scene: Half dark and sexy, half underground madcap. On any given evening, a room full of date-nighters might be canoodling over spritzes, or a disco dance/punch party could be in full effect.
Go for: The seasonal menu of brilliant if not occasionally curveball cocktails. The aperitivo and spritz sections are always on point, created for drinkers who want to go the distance.
Donna | 27 Broadway, Brooklyn
The scene: A vaguely Brooklyn-on-the-Mediterranean vibe. Arched ceilings, whitewashed walls, frosted glass windows and a massive curved concrete bar. Young, stylish Brooklynites sipping frozen cocktails and Aperol spritzes.
Go for: Taco Tuesday and a pitcher of Aperol Spritzes for a crowd. Bring your buddies.