Caffé Dante not closing, longtime owner assures

Mario Flotta, Caffé Dante’s owner, said a recent rumor had fueled a flurry of inaccurate reports online that the place was closing.   Photos by Tequila Minsky

Mario Flotta, Caffé Dante’s owner, said a recent rumor had fueled a flurry of inaccurate reports online that the place was closing. Photos by Tequila Minsky

BY TEQUILA MINSKY  |  Raoul Martinez was bundled up against the arctic blast on MacDougal St. when he blew into Caffé Dante around the corner from his apartment. He mingled with a few patrons also sheltering from the cold. And, it was almost as if he had lit a candle at St. Anthony’s and his prayers were answered: No, Caffé Dante was not closing.

“I thought you would have told me [if you were closing],” he said to owner Mario Flotta, who assuaged his fears.

Rumors gone wild, begun by Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, of the cafe’s imminent closing swirled on the blogosphere two weeks ago. Even a week later, people were drifting in to ask: Are you closing?

Flotta has owned the 100-year-old cafe since 1970. Between fielding calls from press — responding to the rumors — he dismissed the buzz as having possibly been started by a waitress who picked up pieces of table talk.

He admitted that last year his monthly rent was raised by $9,000, which is a lot of additional espressos to sell.

Last year, as Caffé Dante’s windows were papered over, the neighborhood held its breath in a similar scare.

“We’re renovating,” Flotta explained back then.

Flotta admits that the cafe lost customers due to being closed for those three months.

How did Australians enter the rumor mill, though?

“Last year, they shot a commercial here for the Australian Vittoria Coffee,” Flotta explained. “Paid me  $7, 000 [for use of the location]. Al Pacino was in it.”

Vittoria Coffee made him an offer: “ ‘If you use our coffee, we’ll give it to you free,’ ” he said. “My coffee [Caffen] comes from Naples. I like this coffee.”

Flotta pointed to the expanded bar along a far wall.

“We’ve always had a liquor license,” he said. “I’ve had four in this neighborhood,” he noted, ticking off Joe’s Pizza, Café Donatello and Trattoria Dante as the other eateries he has owned.

“You really have to like the restaurant business. Not everyone is cut out for this,” said Flotta, who obviously loves people and schmoozes with the regulars when he’s not busy. “It’s not for everyone,” he reiterated.

Flotta is clearly of the ’hood, telling you, for example, which Italian bakeries are good or not. He gets his mozzarella from Joe’s Dairy; though its Sullivan St. location is closed, he buys wholesale from its New Jersey factory.

“I did business with Joe’s mother,” he said, referring to the original owner’s mom.

Dante’s decor is a mix of huge, aging black-and-white photo vistas of Florence and a smattering of other vintage-looking photos of Italian village and coastal scenes. Two shots from Naples hang near the window.

The rest of the walls are peppered with framed snapshots of celebrities, mostly actors, like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Jerry Seinfeld, posing with Flotta, and also Italian soccer great Paolo Maldini.

Flotta pointed out a black-and-white photo above the lintel between Caffé Dante’s two rooms. On the right in the shot, taken at Golden Pizza — which today is Joe’s Pizza — is a much, much younger Flotta.

Flotta launched into how he got his start in the business. He arrived here from Avellino, near Naples, in 1958 at age 14, joining his mother in her $30-a-month Spring St. apartment. His father had died. His mom worked in a Soho factory, sewing collars on shirts.

He labored for 12 years in the restaurant business, starting in Brooklyn. He worked in the kitchen, later waiting tables in Uptown Manhattan.

“I started working at Golden Pizza, and a few years later, I bought it for $17,000,” he said.

After six months, he had eight people working there and he “changed the sauce.”

So, what’s the secret of good pizza sauce?

“You must use tomatoes from Italy, good tomatoes, and basil,” he said. “And, you don’t cook it.”

“I used to watch my mother cook,” he recalled.  “She wanted me to see, once saying, ‘What if your wife doesn’t cook?’ ”

Flotta said he oversees everything in Caffé Dante’s kitchen.

The menu offers very reasonably priced Neapolitan-style pizzas, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana and salads. But Flotta said, “We’re going to expand our menu.”

The menu also lists macchiato, mocha, latte and other coffee choices, served in ceramic demitasse cups or mugs or glasses for the lattes.

The delectable Italian desserts, like the “we make it here” tiramisu (ladyfingers dipped in coffee, layered with a whipped mixture of eggs, sugar and mascarpone), and the house specialty, the cold zabaglione (light custard made with egg yolks and sugar), beckon from a display case.

As Flotta talked about his life and the business, he reflected on all the attention he’s gotten since word spread of the cafe’s alleged “closing.”

“Why don’t you get the interest and attention when you need it?” he sighed.

What really gets him wound up, though, are landlords and rent.

A younger Mario Flotta, at right, at Golden Pizza (today Joe’s Pizza) on Carmine St., which Flotta later bought.

A younger Mario Flotta, at right, at Golden Pizza (today Joe’s Pizza) on Carmine St., which Flotta later bought.

“It’s not just commercial rents,” he stressed. “When people pay so much for rent,” he said, gesturing to the Village neighborhood, “they don’t have money to go out.

“My advice: Don’t open any business, chances are you’ll go broke,” he said. “The rents, it’s impossible. You fix it up for the landlord and that’s it!”

The looming closure of this venue is a rumor gone awry. For now, there is a reprieve, and neighbor Martinez, along with many others in the Village and around New York, are breathing a caffeinated sigh of relief.

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