Ever since I returned from Italy, I've been searching for a good aperitivo hour—that wonderful time of the evening when bars and cafés deliver free bite-sized snacks along with your cocktail. Of course, plenty of bars in New York have small plates menus, but I missed the nibbles that complemented a glass of wine without upping the bill by a few bucks.
So when I found out that Gusto Ristorante and Centro Vinoteca were serving aperitivi every night from 5 to 7 p.m.—free bar snacks along with a $7 quartino of wine or $8 cocktail—I knew I had to give them a try.
Both Gusto and Centro Vinoteca are owned by Sasha Muniak, hence their simultaneous aperitivi hours, so this isn't really a showdown. But two trendy Italian spots, serving free bar snacks just steps from each other in the West Village, beg for a side-by-side comparison. So that’s what we did.
This modern Italian bi-level on Seventh Avenue South was fast off the block when it opened in 2007, quickly earning acclaim with Anne Burrell at the helm. Centro Vinoteca then got a second wave of publicity when its new executive chef, Leah Cohen, became an almost-finalist on Top Chef Season 5 in New York. And under both chefs, the menu's large and well-reviewed selection of snack-sized piccolini. So Centro seemed like a perfect spot for a nibble and a drink.
At the ground-level wine bar, any of the quartini that usually sell for $12 or under—around ten, split between red and white—are available for $7. In explaining a quartino of wine, bartenders often call it "a bit more than a glass," which, in my opinion, sells it short; that little vessel holds a third of a bottle (or a quarter of a liter, thus the name). Seven dollars for more than a glass and a half of a good Puglian Negroamaro is about as good a deal as you’ll find in a West Village wine bar.
Centro's entire specialty cocktail list is also included in aperitivo hour, drinks that normally sell for $12 available for $8. A cucumber-gin martini and the "Spring Thyme," a fizzy muddled raspberry-herb concoction, were both tasty and generously poured.
And each drink comes with a complimentary trio of bites from the piccolini menu. A hearty shrimp-chickpea fritter had the flavor of the former and the heft of the latter; a bit heavy, but a dab of lemon aioli brightened it up. The truffled deviled egg, creamy and delicate, perfectly integrated the truffle flavor: strong, but not overpowering. Best of all was a tiny BLT, crisped pancetta over smoky tomato confit on crunchy, oily crostini.
These three little bites might not be what I'd choose off Centro’s piccolini menu, had I my run of the list. But brought out for free, alongside a well-priced quartino of wine, at a bar where the building's funny angles and picture windows allow an almost panoramic view of the West Village bustle—I'd be hard-pressed to think of a better way to spend $7 in that neighborhood. (Plus tip, of course.)
74 Seventh Avenue South, New York NY 10014 (map); 212-367-7470
A few blocks up Seventh Avenue is Gusto Ristorante, a modern neighborhood Italian joint with Ed’s favorite meatballs in town. Though Gusto, like Centro Vinoteca, isn’t exactly a bargain dining destination, the restaurant offers the same happy hour deal: $7 quartini and $8 cocktails with complimentary bar snacks.
Though the drink selection is a bit more limited—three reds, three whites, and a few prosecco-based cocktails—there are good options to choose from, like a sweet, dry Montepulciano. And Gusto immediately won points when an obliging bartender punched in our aperitivi order at 7:02.
Centro calls their nibbles piccolini; Gusto sticks with “bar snacks.” And both were apt descriptions. The food brought out at Gusto definitely fell into bar food territory: cheesey, fried, and heavy on the salt. But in a well-executed manner. Beignets of parmagiano reggiano and prosciutto cotto were pepper-spiced and piping hot. Arancini, little balls of risotto, were stuffed with parm and prosciutto (sensing a theme?) and fried golden-brown. They flanked a pile of paper-thin potato chips. And though not technically part of the special, little dishes of delicious mixed olives appeared throughout the evening.
60 Greenwich Avenue, New York NY 10011 (map); 212-924-8000
For drink selection, piccolini quality, and general ambiance, I'd give the edge to Centro Vinoteca. But it’s hard to go wrong at either. Wine pours for $7, seven days a week, with bar snacks from top-notch kitchens thrown in? These days, happy hour specials pop up too fast for any one person to try them all. But Gusto and Centro Vinoteca will be two I head back to.