Bar Review: The Making of American Aperitivo

Since opening in a 100-year-old landmark, Dante has brought new meaning to the Italian-style cocktail, and reaffirmed the iconic space as a New York City mainstay.

Dante has been playing head games with me for a while now. I tend to think of the elegant Italian-styled bar as sticking to a few things and doing them very well: Negronis, spritzes, Garibaldis—all that apertivo jazz that the bar has made its calling card since opening in 2015.

But Dante has a lot of tricks up its immaculate white sleeves. Most recently, it was a $5 mini-Martini—a chalkboard special. As with many of the bar’s drinks, a lot of unseen background rigor goes into the tiny, immediately appealing thing; it’s composed of gin, dry vermouth, toasted fennel tincture, saline, verjus and lemon bitters, and garnished with a caper berry. Before the bartender set mine down, he quickly shifted a coaster into place. I could read the words through the clear cocktail. “Dante loves you,” it said.

I smiled—a nice bit of kitsch. Or, just maybe, the secret to the bar’s success. There’s a lot of love in everything Dante does. Love of service, love of professionalism, of style, of invention, of hospitality, of tradition, of fun. And, thus far, New York seems to love Dante right back. The bar is always crowded, and usually with people who look like they’d rather be nowhere else.

This out-of-the-gate success was unexpected. One of the most frustrating, but sadly common, experiences of living in today’s New York is seeing a beloved landmark restaurant and bar disappear, only to be replaced by a soulless, fly-by-night enterprise that doesn’t last more than a year or two. Much more unusual is to find an iconic place replaced by yet another iconic place. But that’s the circumstance at Dante, which three years ago supplanted an old Greenwich Village café that had been there nearly a century—and, against all odds, transformed itself into a mainstay.

It was understood from the start that the new Dante would be a substantial affair. It was opened by Naren Young and Linden Pride, along with Natalie Hudson (Pride and Hudson are the owners). The first two are Australian star bartenders with long resumes and lots of talent; it wasn’t likely they were going to open a bad bar. Still, Young—the better known of the two—had an erratic track record in the States, running several programs (Public, The Dutch, Bacchanal and, most notably, Saxon + Parole), while never really leaving a mark. It was a question whether he could settle down and create something lasting. Furthermore, the idea that a couple of Australians were going to show Americans how to drink in the Italian manner—well, let’s just say it sounded like a long shot.

But that is exactly what they’ve done. Dante was well thought out from the start, and they have managed to do a surprising number of things with preternatural style and aplomb. They kept the layout and façade of the old café, allowing whispers of its old-world, Greenwich Village charms to inhabit the space. At the same time, they redid the interior in white tiles, tin, brick and banquettes, a look that mixes New York chic with classic Italian style. There is still outdoor seating—another convention that speaks simultaneously of Manhattan and Milan—but it is now in the service of sophisticated day drinking. A number of their drinks, including the draft Negroni and the Garibaldi (Campari and fluffy orange juice), became local classics overnight. In short, it’s an effortlessly urbane bar, the sort that people imagine New York has a lot of, but really doesn’t.

“We saw the opportunity to bring Caffe Dante back to a place where it had once been,” Pride told me, as a “pivotal, neighborhood meeting place, where locals and out-of-towners could spend time with family or friends at any given time of the day, over coffee, lunch, a meal or a cocktail at the bar.”

Dante has also managed to make itself influential in a way that few modern cocktail bars have. Young has worked tirelessly to promote the bar’s ethos, doing Dante pop-ups all over the world, including ones in Barcelona, Moscow, Shanghai and London (twice). Sure, it’s all glory-chasing self-promotion, the sort most top cocktail bars traffic in these days. But his efforts have also succeeded to a considerable extent in spreading the religion of aperitivo drinking, which is hardly a bad thing.

So, let the world have its Dante copies; New York has the real thing. Still, the bar does have some drawbacks, mainly its size. The bar stools and outdoor chairs fill up quickly, and there’s little room to stand. If you’re not among the lucky seated, it can feel claustrophobic. I’ve often looked at the surrounding dining tables and wished them away.

But the lack of space has never persuaded me to turn on heel and quit the place. The promise of the drinks is too strong. That draft Negroni is the best in town, perfectly balanced and served up in seconds. Their piquant and light-as-air Garibaldi has single-handedly made up for decades of bad orange juice cocktails. And while the Negroni Bianco has one of the most annoying garnishes in town (a prickly spray of baby’s breath), Instagram loves it as much as I love the gentle bite of the liquid beneath, a harmonious sea of gin, bianco vermouth, quinquina wine, verjus and bitters. The mix is representative of the overall Dante palate, which is bright, high-toned and aromatic. You won’t find too many moody, boozy wells here. Buoyancy and levity are the keynotes, often helped along with a touch of saline to keep things popping.

Those drinks and other standards, such as the Salty Dog and Pimm’s Cup, illustrate Dante’s talent at showing us classic cocktails in a new light, dismantling them and then building them back up in ways that are subtly individual and yet honor the original idea. The “Negroni Sessions” page is perhaps the best example of this. You’re given solid representations of all the Negroni family members (Americano, Old Pal, Boulevardier) as well as original outliers (the Chocolate Negroni, one of Young’s older drinks made with crème de cacao, and the Unlikely Negroni, with tequila and pineapple shrub). A recent addition was the Red Sky Negroni, which had a deep, lovely smokiness to it, coming from lapsang souchong tea-infused Martini Bitter and a final spray of Laphroaig single malt Scotch.

Young has a love for eye-catching flash, which sometimes goes too far. His Vermouth Service, another Dante staple, submerges several frozen grapes in five ounces of dry vermouth and a splash of sparkling water. When I first encountered it at Bacchanal, I considered it a stunt drink. But over time I’ve come to appreciate the sweet, simple novelty of the marriage between the fruit and the wine, and I crave it when I’m in the mood for something cool and light.

But, then, whatever mood I’m in, Dante seems to have the liquid answer, including answers to problems I didn’t know I had. While drinking the above-mentioned mini-Martini, two women next to me ordered Whiskey Sours, a cocktail I’d never had at Dante. The bartender shook them up and strained them into coupes. He then placed two barspoons across the rims, and rested a couple plastic stencils reading “Dante” on the spoons and, with an atomizer filled with Angostura bitters, tattooed the frothy surface with the bar’s name. It was just another one of those little extra flourishes the bar is so good at—one of the many ways it says, “Dante Loves You.”

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