Food Matters: ‘D’ marks the spot
Step through a secret garden to Dante Aspen at Chefs Club: aperitivo awaits
Begin your journey between Rubey and Wagner parks in late afternoon. Walk toward the mountain, across Durant Avenue and past Dean Street. Continue a few paces, but not too far. Look for a lush ivy arbor, marked by a small wooden sign embossed with gold script: Dante.
Most people will find this Aspen outpost of the New York import and “World’s Best Bar” here at Chefs Club at the St. Regis Aspen Resort by entering through the hotel. But the side entrance, which leads a visitor down stone stairs beside tufts of fragrant basil, lavender, rosemary and mint bursting from a robust culinary garden, is your unexpected route. Which is exactly what Caffe Dante, an Italian legend in Greenwich Village since 1915, aims to create: a special moment that makes you step into another world.
“We want it to feel like a spritz aperitivo garden,” says owner Linden Pride, who relocated Dante from the base of Aspen Mountain to Chefs Club this past June for a yearlong residency. “At Snow Lodge, the patio was tied into après-ski. Chefs Club is a more European influence…to focus on a time of the day that we celebrate as part of our brand: aperitivo.” (Here in Aspen, enjoy $10 cocktails and Italian snacks every Wednesday to Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m.;)
Inside, Chefs Club has been transformed with Dante’s signature sage green, gold-embossed windows and mirrors, wooden wine-crate tabletops, and white blooms and wandering ivy galore by Nathalie Hudson, Pride’s wife and business partner. Nine bar seats, and two plush banquettes for groups up to eight, create a lounge vibe alongside the vast dining room set before Chefs Club’s impressive open kitchen.
“Aperitivo hour gives you a really good chance to dive into what makes Dante special,” explains Dante special project manager Britney Anderson, who has spent the past few months meeting locals and visiting guests. “There’s something very New York about talking to your bartender. That’s the spirit of Dante.”
The fine-dining establishment’s award-winning cocktail program and bar menu is only part of it. Dante’s à la carte menu showcases coastal Italian cuisine prepared by chef and Dante culinary director Stefano di Silvestre, a native of Penne, Abruzzo, Italy. Simplicity shines in fritto misto, mixed seafood fried lightly in rice flour until ultra-crispy; imported charcuterie, cheese and marinated white Cantabrian anchovies and burrata with Sungold cherry tomatoes and Taggiasche olives.
“Our anchovies come from Spain,” Di Silvestre notes. “I use a method that I learned working in Sardinia. In Aspen, I let myself be inspired by the surroundings and try to understand which products linked to my origins are present in the area and include them in dishes.”
Among the regional flourishes: bright heirloom tomato and Palisade peach salad sprinkled with goat cheese and freekeh (toasted young wheat, an ancient grain); marinated and roasted free-range chicken with butter lettuce salad; and grilled ribeye steak “tagliata” with cherry tomatoes.
A standout among Di Silvestre’s light yet cozy Italian comfort food is the pasta. This past winter, Dante diners gravitated toward wild boar ragù and mushroom lasagna; dishes now at Chefs Club under Di Silvestre’s stewardship match the refined, airy space. My dining companion raved that the paccheri — plump tubes coated in a creamy lobster bisque sauce — transported her to a romantic Amalfi holiday. Tagliolini (with black truffles), chitarra (with nduja sausage tomato sauce and ricotta) and tagliatelle are crafted from scratch.
“The chitarra is absolutely inspired by my nonna,” Di Silvestre says. “It reminds me of Sundays when my grandma used to make fresh pasta and cut it in the chitarra, a special tool used in Abruzzo to cut the pasta like spaghetti.”
Di Silvestre, who served as chef de cuisine at Cipriani in New York and opened outposts of the five-star spot in Mexico City, Vegas and Miami, also spent two seasons at restaurants in St. Mortiz, Switzerland. Similarities to Aspen, he says, are abundant.
“I feel the same atmosphere of a mountain city with style, art, luxury and many activities,” Di Silvestre says. “The (Aspen) Saturday Market reminds me of my hometown, where a similar market takes place every Saturday. They’re all small towns, with lots of nature and kind people.”
Sharing Dante’s Italian heritage is personal for Pride, too. “My mum is a chef and cookbook writer,” says the Australia native. “She wrote a lot about Italian food and we spent a lot of time in Italy. The food, the coffee, aperitivo, Negronis — I feel like I’ve always grown up in and around it. It’s a part of our family.”
Sourcing is part of the magic, thanks to Dante’s longstanding relationship with an Italian importer. The New York flagship roasts and ships its own house-blend espresso to Aspen each week. A West Coast fishmonger supplies fresh catch. Currently the menu includes branzino (Mediterranean sea bass), Dover sole and red snapper, the latter presented in a delicate cherry tomato-garlic-parsley acqua pazza (“crazy water”).
“It’s heart food,” Anderson quips. And that broth is best soaked up by Dante’s warm, oven-baked bread, itself a must-order served with whipped, smoked butter.
For me, those briny anchovies are a revelation.
“Me too!” Anderson exclaims. “I’d never ordered that before, but it is, hands down, my favorite thing to eat here. How can something so simple be so good?”
Just as the Dante Martini is a legend (and available bottled, as it was this winter), the Garibaldi cocktail is a two-ingredient showstopper elevated by technique.
“It’s super aerated, almost whipped,” Anderson says of the “fluffy” fresh-pressed orange juice, which gets a balancing boost of Campari. “You get the texture of the fruit, so it tastes more intensified in the glass. I find that once people try some of those unexpected things, that’s what makes them come back.”
Envisioning winter, Pride anticipates après-ski out on the courtyard patio. “Yes, we are entertaining the yurt component,” he shares, referencing the structures built in winter 2018-19 when Eleven Madison Park popped up as EMP Winter House at Chefs Club. Dante’s second showing remains a partnership with the Snow Lodge, so a key component to winter programming will be more live music, he adds.
Simple sensory pleasures — and more festive surprises — await. And it all begins with an aperitivo.
Amanda Rae is the editor of “The Aspen Cookbook” (November 2020), a fundraiser for restaurant workers: AspenCookbook.com. email@example.com
A banquette for lounging during aperitivo hour. | Photo by Amanda Rae
Dante Aspen at Chefs Club
St. Regis Aspen Resort, 315 E. Dean St.
Aperitivo Hour: 3-5 p.m.
Dinner: 5-11 p.m.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.