The best aperitivo bars in NYC
Photo: Ryan Duffin; Prop styling: Liz Mydlowski
When the Milanese Edoardo Mantelli planned his new restaurant Fort Greene, Saraghina Cafe (195 Dekalb Ave.), Aperitivo — that distinctly Italian form of socializing over low-proof cocktails and snacks before, or sometimes in lieu of, dinner — should be a big part of it. But now that it’s officially opened, it faces a cultural conundrum: Will frenzied, time-crunched New Yorkers embrace the carefree ritual of his homeland? And will our different business model allow it? For one thing, Italians eat later than Americans, and a leisurely aperitivo can go on for hours without endangering table availability: “At 7 p.m. they’re still sweeping the floor in a restaurant there.” Compare that to the queue that already formed on the weekend evenings before his café opens at five o’clock, full of families and couples ready to eat dinner, not just nibble. As he gradually extends hours, he plans to open at 4 p.m. in the coming weeks to open riffs on drinks like the americano and spritz, which practically define the aperitivo, and snacks like fries and olives — “Maybe a small one pizza,” he says. “It’s a short window of time between four and five, but I still want to try.”
He’s not the only one. Aperitivo culture is on the rise among Italophile restaurateurs and customers alike, although our in-between version is more early riser and à la carte due to the demands on service hours and pricing structures. (In Italy, the cost of food is usually included in the price of drinks. Here, it’s almost always extra.) But even a steamed aperitivo is better than no aperitivo at all, especially as the weather warms, al fresco dining returns, and so on The prospect of a social gathering has never felt so irresistible. Here’s where to go and what to get.
440 W. 33rd St.
Aside from generally celebrating life while imagining yourself as a well-heeled character in a Paolo Sorrentino film, aperitivo hour is about whetting the appetite, not suppressing it. For this reason, when you whet that appetite at Ci Siamo, you must exercise a kind of superhuman restraint. That’s how good Hillary Sterling’s snacks are. Accompanying the excellent cocktails (try the house spritz or the Bitter Giuseppe) are delightfully doughy bites meant for sharing but meant for hoarding: a pizza bianca board with Spanish anchovies, gnocci fritto in pop-tart- Filled with melted goat gouda that you can drape with mortadella, and what we’re calling the best new slice in town: a Roman-style focaccia-like square known by the alias “pizzette.” As all restaurants should be required by law to do, Ci Siamo reserves the bar and lounge for walk-in customers. But if you want a seat, get there early.
1 Rockefeller Zip.
With its linen tablecloths and beige waiters, Lodi exudes practical elegance—an island of sophistication in a sea of American Girl grocery bags. But don’t let the apparent incongruity put you off; Even the most polite European cafes have their share of tourists. And Lodi’s decor is great for al fresco drinking: the cozy interior space is limited to window sills, while all tables occupy the spacious, traffic-free space. Skip the covered terrazza for the umbrella-shaded seats around the corner, and let the afternoon melt into evening as you sample seasonal and even daily variations on the spritz and Negroni, like the recent infusion of an alpine aperitif and a local rhubarb liqueur. Snacks range from a caddy of peanuts, chips, and olives to a quaint still life of anchovies, butter, and marinated peppers. Focus on anything that comes with or on top of the homemade bread (an attraction in itself), including tramezzini and fresh ricotta drizzled with oil.
Unlike other centers of New York’s aperitivo culture, Bar Pisellino is not a restaurant. There’s no dinner, no power lunch, no reservations – so you don’t have to squeeze your visit into a pre-determined time slot. A West Village boulevardier can drop by anytime for perhaps the most stylish take on Italian drinking in town: salty snacks lined up on a bar’s glowing backdrop (cacio e pepe patatines are potato chips’ higher calling), spritzers and Americanos served on silver trays shuttled back and forth, paper-wrapped, bite-sized sandwiches ready to satisfy any appetite that might develop. Form meets function on the triangular corner lot, where the spacious layout favors outdoor seating on two separate walkway sections and sooner or later the whole world will pass by.
79-81 Macdougal St.
Why is Dante the nirvana for budget-minded aperitivo hour addicts? Because the Negroni Sessions menu is a 12-drink ode to this cocktail and its infinite permutations, and if you go from 3pm to 5pm you can meticulously sift through these at a cost of $10 a drink, $1 of which is included Running list of works goes to God’s love that we deliver. See why many consider house classic Negroni to be the last word on sweet-bitter botanical balance. Discover the cardinale (a Negroni that substitutes dry vermouth for sweet) or a premium americano made with Maldon sea salt and ginger-free “ginger soda.” Snack on mortadella flatbread and Kalamata olives in between. Enjoy the leisurely pace. Even with the current scaffolding situation, a seat on the sidewalk is a transporting experience.
The standing coffee bar, the chic pink uniforms, the museum-quality pastry and panini displays: when the Milanese export Sant Ambroeus landed on Madison Avenue 40 years ago, it created a template that many would aspire to (including himself; branches in the US now count ten and count). While there’s no set aperitivo hour, if you show up between lunch and dinner and have the confidence of a practiced aperitivo habitué, order some snacks to go with your negroni variation (try the soda-infused salted or the rosato too Lillet Blanc and Pink Gin) the kitchen is happy to keep up. Recently we were happily grazing on chunks of parmigiana and a bowl of good olives, and the maître d’ threw in an overflowing basket of bread and some candied nuts. We recommend the Soho location for top-notch people-watching, 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 opening the groundbreaking Spuyten Duyvil, Joe Carroll has shifted his focus to what he believes will be the next big thing: amari, vermouth, and low-alcohol cocktails made from them. “We’re not giving up on craft beer,” says Carroll. “We expand it with other things.” Visitors will notice that the old blackboard menu at the back bar has been replaced with shelves of bitters (including vintage finds) from around the world. Try them neat, on the rocks, or in a spritz, but if the choices are overwhelming, you can order a cocktail like the Tinto de Bràulio, which pairs alpine amaro with lemon soda and mint. Carroll notes that much of his business now comes from customers at his St. Anselm steakhouse next door, who frequent pre and post-dinner aperitifs and digestifs. For those not planning dinner, Carroll has expanded its snack menu with a wide range of canned goods served straight from the can or jar. Despite these changes, Carroll has wisely done nothing about the large, gravel-strewn, open-air backyard that doubles as an aperitivo terrace as well as a beer garden.
132 Greene Avenue, Clinton Hill
Clinton Hill isn’t Venice, but judging by the crowd of revelers clinking glasses, gulping splashes, and generally cheering in front of Aita, you wouldn’t know. The Italian restaurant has a lot going for it in the aperitivo lifestyle department: First, its prime corner location, which gives it plenty of outdoor space in a lighted roadside “pavilion” and at tables on the sidewalk. Second, it’s introduced a true Aperitivo menu, a bitters-based sort of happy hour from 5pm to 7pm, at which time the kitchen offers cichetti (toothpicked, finger-friendly bites like bruschette and croquettes) for the price of a drink. And third, and most importantly, it’s got Althea Codamon, general manager and self-proclaimed squirt obsessive. She has curated an extensive drinks menu that highlights naturally colored and flavored amari, vermouth and bitters in small batches, all available on ice, as a highball or as a spritz. It’s great fun working through, testing bitter tolerance and noting the botanical variance between, say, the mildly sweet Apologue Persimmon from Chicago and an Aperol alternative from Sardinian producer Silvio Carta. Another selling point? Proximity to more dining, from Aita itself or from Impasto, the attached Roman-style pizzeria across the street, where you can extend the dolce vita with touches of vanilla and pistachio soft serve ice cream, anointed with olive oil and sea salt.