“Americans drink pretty heavily. Most of the time it’s just about getting hammered.”
Naren Young, a young Australian looking to change up the NYC cocktail scene, sits in a banquette at Dante. It’s an all-day Italian café-bar that’s nestled into one of Manhattan’s coziest blocks. He orders a Negroni and finds his train of thought.
“People’s idea of happy hour here is: what can I get cheapest, what’ll get me drunk fastest?” He’s not totally right, but he’s not entirely off the mark either.
Just north of the café is a sticky street where sweaty, neon-lit dives offer cut rate tequila shots from bartender’s bosoms. It’s safe to say that this strip of bars embodies the worst of American drinking culture. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a stiff drink and a bit too much fun. But, after seeing washed up frat bros and 2-for-1 warriors adorn the gutters with undercooked ramen dinners night after night, it’s hard not to seek out something different.
Dante (where Naren runs the cocktail program) is definitely something different. All of the drinks are made with lighter, more intricate flavors and less hard liquor. These are beverages made in true Italian fashion, for sitting and sipping at any hour.
“There’s nothing here that’s too boozy.” Naren points at the drinks list. “If you want something stirred and brown you can get it, but you probably won’t see it on the menu. ”
That’s because drinking in Italy revolves around cocktails that are sessionable: Negronis, Girabaldis, Amaros, Proseccos, Bellinis and Aperol Spritzers. None of these cocktails (when made right) have a high ABV, and they don’t need to. Getting drunk is possible, but it’s not the point.
“In Europe it’s not called happy hour, it’s just called life.” Naren laughs. “Go to any café in the afternoon and there are people drinking Aperol Spritzers and glasses of Prosecco. It’s just a part of their day.”
Admittedly, it would be easy to mistake a love of Italian aperitifs for a Eurocentric brand of pretentiousness. To the contrary, to embrace aperitivos is to embrace a casual form of all-day drinking without the drunkenness, big booze and bloating. These cocktails aren’t as finicky or highfalutin’ as they sound, but they are delicious.
“The Negroni is a very forgiving cocktail.” Bryan Schneider slides a few across the bar at Quality Italian. The man designs hundreds of cocktails for New York mainstays like Quality Meats, Smith & Wollensky and Park Avenue, but the Italian drinks hold a special place in his heart.
“Italy is so easy to riff on. The Italians have a whimsical approach to drinking. There’s always a sense of humor worked in. One example is the Café Correto, an espresso with liquor in it.” He opens a jar of house-made Sambuca and continues.
“Correto means corrected. Basically, it’s their way of saying that the coffee has been made better by the booze in it.” It’s clear that he agrees, like everyone else in the room.
Back at Dante, the sidewalk seating fills up. The sunlight starts to soften and a couple speaks French at a nearby table. It’s neither dinner nor happy hour, it’s aperitivo time. Memories of boilermakers and binging lose their luster. MacDougal street starts to feel like Rome, and the last thing in the world I want is a $3 shot of tequila.