Pictured: Ryan Duffin; Accessories styling: Liz Mydlowski
When Milanese Edoardo Mantelli was planning his new restaurant Fort Greene, Saraghina Caffè (195 Dekalb Ave.), aperitivo — that quintessentially Italian form of socializing over low-alcohol cocktails and snacks, before or sometimes in place of dinner — was meant to be a big part of it. But now that it has officially opened its doors, it faces a cultural conundrum: will frantic, time-pressed New Yorkers embrace the carefree ritual of its homeland? And will our different economic model allow it? For one thing, he says, Italians tend to dine later than Americans, and a leisurely aperitif session can stretch on for hours without compromising dinner table availability: “At 7 p.m. in a restaurant there, they’re still sweeping the floor.” Contrast that with the line that has already begun to form on weekend evenings before its five o’clock cafe opens, full of families and couples ready to dine, not just snack. As it gradually extends the hours, it plans to open at 4 p.m. in the coming weeks for riffs on drinks like the Americano and the spritz, which practically define the appetizer, and snacks like fries and olives – “Maybe a little pizzette”, he says. “It’s a short time between four and five years, but I still want to try.”
He is not the only one. Appetizer culture is on the rise among restaurateurs and Italian-loving customers, although due to the demands of serving times and pricing structures, our between-meal version tends to be early risers and the map. (In Italy, the cost of food is usually rolled into the price of the drink. Here it’s almost always an extra.) But even a toned down appetizer is better than no appetizer at all, especially since the The weather is warming up, outdoor dining is returning, and the prospect of a social gathering has never been more irresistible. Here, where to go and what to get.
440 W. 33rd Street.
Besides generally celebrating life while fantasizing that you’re a well-heeled character in a Paolo Sorrentino movie, the purpose of happy hour is to stimulate the appetite, not crush it. This is why, to stimulate said appetite in Ci Siamo, one must exercise a kind of superhuman restraint. Hillary Sterling’s snacks are so good. To accompany the excellent cocktails (try the house spritz or the Bitter Giuseppe), there are wonderfully doughy bites designed to be shared but doomed to hoarding: a bianca pizza board topped with Spanish anchovies, a pop-sized gnocco fritto Tart stuffed with melted goat Gouda sauce that you can drape in bologna, and what we call the best new slice in town: a Roman-style focaccia square under the moniker “pizzette.” As all restaurants should be required by law to do, Ci Siamo reserves the bar and lounge for walk-in customers. But arrive early if you want a seat.
1 Rockefeller plz.
With its linen tablecloths and beige coated waiters, Lodi practically exudes elegance – an island of sophistication in a sea of American Girl shopping bags. But don’t be put off by the apparent incongruity; the suave European cafes also have their share of tourists. And Lodi’s layout is perfectly suited for outdoor dining purposes: the cozy interior is confined to window sills, while all the tables occupy the spacious, traffic-free plaza. Ditch the Terrazza tent for seats under the shade of umbrellas around the corner and let the afternoon turn into evening as you sample seasonal and even daily variations on spritz and negroni, like the recent blend of an alpine aperitif and a local rhubarb liqueur. The snacks run the gamut from a basket of peanuts, crisps and olives to a painterly still life of anchovies, butter and pickled peppers. Focus on whatever goes with it or the homemade bread (an attraction in its own right), including Tramezzini and fresh ricotta drizzled with oil.
52 Grove Street
Unlike other centers of New York’s aperitif culture, Bar Pisellino is not a restaurant. There’s no dinner service, no power lunches, no reservations – so there’s no need to squeeze your visit into a predetermined window. A West Village boulevardier can turn up anytime for what might be the city’s most elegant take on Italian drinking: savory snacks lined up against a bright bar scene (cacio e pepe patatine is the superior calling of chips), spritzes and Americanos carried on silver platters, bite-size sandwiches wrapped in paper ready to satiate any appetite that might develop. Form meets function on the triangular corner lot, where the generous layout favors outdoor seating on two separate stretches of sidewalk, and sooner or later the whole world passes by.
79-81 Macdougal St.
Why is Dante nirvana for budget-conscious aperitif junkies? Because the Negroni Sessions menu is a 12-glass ode to this cocktail and its endless permutations, and if you drop by from 3-5 p.m., you can work your way through this painstakingly executed list for $10 a glass, including $1 goes to the love of God we deliver. Find out why many consider the house’s classic negroni the ultimate in sweet-bitter-botanical balance. Check out the Cardinale (a negroni that replaces sweet vermouth with dry) or a Superior Americano, made with Maldon sea salt and ginger-free “ginger ale”. Between sips, snack on mortadella flatbread and Kalamata olives. Delight in the leisurely pace. Even with the current scaffolding situation, a sidewalk seat is a ride experience.
The standing coffee bar, the dazzling pink uniforms, the displays of museum-quality pastries and paninis: when Milan export Sant Ambroeus landed on Madison Avenue 40 years ago, it created a model that many would aspire to (including including himself; the branches in the United States are now ten and counting). Although there is no designated happy hour, if you show up between lunch and dinner and, with the confidence of an experienced happy hour regular, ask for snacks to go with your variation of negroni (try the Salted or the Rosato, with Lillet Blanc and pink gin), the kitchen will be happy to satisfy you. Recently we happily grazed on chunks of parmesan cheese and a bowl of good olives, and the butler threw in an overflowing bread basket and some candied nuts. We recommend the Soho location for people-watching, the ample sidewalk seating with umbrellas, and the ability to slip into the new gelateria next door for dessert.
359 Metropolitan Ave, Williamsburg
With quality craft beer available everywhere from bodega to microbrewery, the destination beer bar has become almost irrelevant. And so, nearly two decades after Joe Carroll opened pioneering Spuyten Duyvil, he’s focused on what he sees as the next big thing: amari, vermouth, and low-ABV cocktails made with them. . “We’re not giving up on craft beer,” says Carroll. “We augment it with other things.” Visitors will find the backbar’s old slate menu replaced with shelves of bitter liquors (including vintage finds) from around the world. Enjoy them neat, over ice or in a spritz, but if the choice is too much for you, you can order a cocktail like the Tinto de Bràulio, which combines amaro from the Alps with lemon soda and mint. Carroll notes that much of his business now comes from patrons of his neighboring steakhouse, St. Anselm, who stop in for appetizers and digestives before and after dinner. For those who haven’t planned dinner, Carroll has expanded its snack menu to include a wide range of preserves, served straight from the can or jar. Despite these changes, Carroll wisely did nothing for the large, gravelled outdoor garden, as appropriate for an aperitif patio as it is for a biergarten.
132 Greene Avenue, Clinton Hill
Clinton Hill isn’t Venice, but judging by the crowd of revelers toasting, downing spritzes, and generally having fun the other night in front of Aita, you wouldn’t know that. The Italian restaurant has several strengths in the aperitif-lifestyle realm: first, its prime corner location, giving it ample outdoor space in a lighted “gazebo” and sidewalk tables. Second, he instituted a veritable appetizer menu, a kind of happy hour based on bitters from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., at which time the kitchen includes cichetti (toothpick bites, like bruschetta and croquettes) with the price of a drink. And third, and most importantly, it has self-proclaimed spritz-obsessed and general manager Althea Codamon. She’s compiled a lengthy drinks menu highlighting small-batch, naturally colored and flavored amari, vermouth and bitter liqueurs, all available on ice, in a highball or spritz. It’s great fun navigating through it, testing your bitters tolerance and determining the botanical variance between, say, Chicago’s slightly sweet Apologue Persimmon and an Aperol alternative from Sardinian producer Silvio Carta. Another selling point? Proximity to more food, Aita itself, or Impasto, its sister Roman-style pizzeria across the street, where you can prolong la dolce vita with a swirl of vanilla and soft pistachio, anointed olive oil and sea salt.