Caffé Dante is a brick and mortar legend in New York City. The hundred plus year old cafe on McDougal Street was once the centerpiece of the South Village Italian community, and all the card games, betting and story swapping that entailed.
In 2015, Linden Pride, an Aussie restauranteur, breathed new life into the institution. He’s blent an Australian emphasis on quality (especially quality coffee) with a traditionally Italian sense of hospitality. CONVICTS caught up with him to get the history of Caffé Dante.
Below Linden tells us about finding bullets and fake gold watches in the basement walls, how the old owner Giuseppi stuffed his mattress with cash, and the way that Caffé Dante restored his faith in the New York community.
Hey Linden. So can you tell us a bit about the history of Cafe Dante?
Well, it’s interesting but so much of it is hearsay. We know that it’s been here for a hundred years, that it opened in 1915 and that there have been three owners over those hundred years. When it opened, this area was called the South Village and it was very much and Italian community. At that time, Cafe Dante was the place where men used to come and play cards and put their bets in. It was such a civic and civil institution for the community, and especially the Italian community in this area.
Have you found any specific pieces of history in here over the years? Old artifacts or letters or anything….
When we did the renovations, we pulled out a box with two fake gold Rolexes and packets of bullets and old interesting nostalgic pieces out of the walls. One of the old owners, Giuseppi, died in 1974. He lived above the cafe and when they went in and found him in the apartment-he’d died in his sleep on the mattress-and when they took the body out the mattress had no filling. It was just cash.
Does that old community of regulars continue to patronize Dante?
We have a lot of the old Dante regulars who’ve been coming here for thirty years and still come in at the same time everyday and want their same coffee. It’s been amazing to get to know those people and facilitate a place for them to come and spend time. Then we’ve also seen so many new locals who live in the area who come in two or three times a week for something beyond the coffee, and its been such an interesting mix between those old school New Yorkers and the new New Yorkers and the ways they’ve come together.
Did the process of re-opening a community hub like this change your attitude about the city or its community at all?
My partners and I lost our faith in the New York community a little bit. We found it very transient in places. Opening Dante gave people an outlet to share their stories and spend time together and it re-installed our belief in what an incredible community this is.
Why the name Caffe Dante? Could you explain the significance of the name for those of us who skipped one too many lit courses in high school?
It’s named after the great Italian poet Dante, who is a great symbol of Italian history. He wrote the Inferno, part of the Divine Comedy, and the original owners named the cafe Dante’s to embody this cornerstone of Italian Culture.
What typically Australian characteristics have you incorporated into the Caffe Dante culture, if any?
I always link it back to the huge immigration post world war. The big Greek and Italian communities in Sydney and Melbourne really influenced the way we approach coffee, and our expectations of quality. That’s just part of the way we grew up and it’s embedded in our culture of hospitality.
What else do you value about the Aussie community, especially here in New York?
I really love that camaraderie amongst the community. We come from a small world back back in Australia. When we come here we really get behind each other and want to see each other succeed. It’s just awesome.