True to its name, Aperitivo Wine Bar in downtown Santa Barbara offers inventive Italian cocktails and a unique Italian wine list, but it’s not the smell of wine and vermouth that grabs you by the nose and draws you in … it’s the food.
“We’re trying to merge two styles of Italian cooking — the best of the simple rustic food, with a few fine-dining twists,” said Brian Dodero, the chef and co-owner.
Judging by the crowd on a recent Wednesday evening at 7 W. Haley St., it’s working.
Complementing the food is a wide array of creative aperitivi (Italian for “before-dinner drinks”) and wines that include “completely different varietals many have never heard of,” co-owner Andrea Girardello said.
And then there’s the service. Each member of the team spent numerous years in the Four Seasons system, and their professionalism shows in the attentive yet unhurried approach.
The combination of these ingredients made us feel like guests in a home in Italy.
Neither Girardello (sommelier) nor Dodero (executive chef) started their careers in the hospitality business, initially pursuing software design and motorcycle repair, respectively. Eventually they snapped out of it and returned to their true passion, Italian food and wine.
Girardello earned his sommelier designation while working at the famed Hotel Principe di Savoia in Milan, and Dodero learned his cooking chops at culinary school in Florence.
They both worked at a succession of well-known properties before arriving in Santa Barbara at the Coral Casino Beach & Cabana Club and the Four Seasons Resort-The Biltmore Santa Barbara.
The two didn’t really know each other until they decided to have coffee one morning. By the time they’d finished, they were heading off to look at a location Dodero had scouted earlier.
Within a few weeks, they’d signed a lease. Unfortunately, this was March 2020 as COVID-19 was raging, possibly the worst time in history to open a new restaurant.
So they began with their take-out Pasta Club (still going strong: reserve by Sunday, pick up on Tuesday) in October 2020, and finally opened to sit-down guests in the spring of 2021.
The Aperitivo Wine Bar menu is small and changes every week. Dodero’s kitchen partner, Benjamin Bruno, told us, “Having the freedom to change the menu on a weekly basis, adjusting to what’s fresh and in season, fuels my passion for cooking.”
We tried the porchetta bruschetta, butternut squash ravioli and pasta with roasted tomato sauce, which all disappeared from our plates at an alarming rate. The food here, in our opinion, rivals the best you’ll find in Rome.
From past experience we can tell you that if you see spaghetti with squid ink on the menu, order it.
Regarding the beverage offerings, Girardello said, “it’s not personally my style to do the complex mixology type drinks, and that’s not really Italian anyway. We’re trying to be as true as possible to the typical Italian bar.”
At Aperitivo, you’ll find “cocktails” made with unique specialty vermouths and Proseccos in traditional, yet imaginative combinations.
Girardello is proud of the wine list.
“Nobody goes to Italy, even the ones who can afford it, and says, ‘I had this great $500 bottle of wine,’” he explained. “No, they come home, say to their friends, ‘I found this amazing inexpensive bottle of wine and loved it.’
“Same thing here, I look for the flavors that you find when you go to the small country trattorias in Italy … the comfort wine, the authentic wine. And we also try to expose our guests to grapes they may not be familiar with.”
Despite the place being full and busy, the service is engaged, yet calm and without rush.
“The team we have is pretty unique and we wouldn’t be here without them,” Girardello said, adding, “My first customers are my employees, and I want our people to come to work here with a smile on their faces … that smile then becomes a smile on the face of the customers.”
Making the customer feel like an invited guest in someone’s home is the goal of many restaurants, and Aperitivo succeeds in style. Bravissimo!
Let’s Go Eat
Aperitivo Wine Bar, at 7 W. Haley St. in Santa Barbara, is open from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. The restaurant does not take reservations, and guests must be 21 or older.