When Michael Grant and Vinny Dautaj opened the doors to Antico Noè (220 E 53rd Street; 212-750-0802) earlier this month, crowds flocked to the street, some already donning T-shirts bearing the panini shop’s name. “There was no ramp-up,” says Grant. “Day one: Mob.”
It’s a situation many restaurateurs would dream of. At this midtown storefront, it was only a slight surprise. It’s the second outpost of a 70-year-old Florentine panini shop with a massive cult following. It’s a local favorite of study-abroad students, some of whom, says Grant, would visit at least twice a day.
When studying at Lorenzo de’ Medici School, Grant was not one of the “fanatics.” He enjoyed the sandwiches and ate there a couple of times a week, but Grant spent much of his time in Florence traveling, getting to know the country and locals. Soon after arriving, he struck up a friendship with Florence native Dautaj.
Dautaj was a server at a local restaurant called La Reginella. To attract exchange students, he’d stand outside, striking up conversations with people on the street, claiming he was from Jericho or Syosset. “Clearly, he’s not from Long Island, but it worked,” says Grant, as he lets out a laugh. “He would surprise me and make me heart-shaped pizzas. He’s very charismatic.”
The pair struck up an instant friendship, occasionally chatting or emailing after Grant left. When Dautaj and his American wife moved to NYC, he and Grant spoke frequently, meeting in person each month. They’d regularly talk about Antico Noè: the Facebook photos taken by tourists, the comments on the page, and how strong of a following the shop has garnered among Americans.
Grant was working in finance at the time, restructuring distressed companies, but he and Dautaj often discussed going into business together. When Dautaj told Grant he was taking a trip home to Italy, Grant suggested he approach the owners of the original Antico Noè about expanding the concept to the U.S.
Before the conversation even took place, Grant started looking for a local Italian attorney. That itself was a process. “The mentality in Italy [is:] you send an email, don’t hear back for six weeks,” says Grant. True enough, that was the case with first two attorneys he found, but the third was far more responsive. Right after Dautaj approached Antico Noè’s owner, Massimo Torelli, the lawyer took over. Eight months later — after months of negotiating and slow responses — they signed a contract for total exclusive, long-term rights in the U.S. with zero restrictions around the name.
Dautaj and Grant were not the first to approach the owners, who told Dautaj a U.S. location would be a “dream come true.” However, with a lot of legal legwork and back-and-forth, they were the first to pull it off.
Once everything was signed, Dautaj flew back to Florence for two months to learn more about the restaurant. He studied the recipes and techniques, filling out spreadsheets documenting top sellers and every other aspect of the business. Because of problems with importing and distribution, only a few of the ingredients at the U.S. outpost are exactly the same as the original, but 90 percent of the new restaurant’s ingredients are sourced directly from Italy.
Dautaj also brought Antico Noè’s bread back to the States, so they could figure out how to replicate it. “It took us a while,” says Grant. “It’s pretty much exact.” Grant acknowledges that the bread itself is tasteless. Because of a salt tax in Florence hundreds of years ago, they don’t salt the bread, he says. It’s all about the texture, crunchy without crumbling all over the place — ideal for eating on the go. It makes for an obvious, effortless pairing with salty meats.
It took about a year to get the first sandwiches off the press. Grant kept his job in finance while conducting due diligence on the business. He interviewed public-relations firms to explore branding strategies, and they decided to start marketing last summer, in the Hamptons. Their agency placed Antico Noè at high-end events: They catered a cancer-research fundraiser, an event for Real Housewives‘ Jill Zarin, J. Lo’s birthday party aboard a yacht in Sag Harbor, and various weddings. In total, they fed around 15,000 people before the store ever opened.
The duo got a lot of practice throughout the process, and they learned what it would take to deal with high volume, which has forced some departures in technique from the original location. Panini maker Luca Bruzzi is known for taking his time with sandwiches — it can be a 25-minute process. That wouldn’t cut it in NYC. So the paninis are prepped ahead of time, then pressed-to-order. Like at a bagel shop, they’re made in shifts throughout the day.
In Florence, there are 25 options on the menu. Grant and Dautaj will eventually offer all of them, but they’re starting with the top ten. For now, anticipate options like the #2, with roasted turkey, tomatoes, romaine, fresh mozzarella, and Dijon mayo sauce. The #4 is their best-known sandwich, featuring Antico Noè’s stuffed chicken breast with prosciutto, mortadella, sauteed mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, and the shop’s famous rosè sauce. They will gradually introduce more options as the staff settles into place. Meanwhile, caprese skewers and a couple of salads fill out the grab-and-go options.
Since opening the storefront earlier this month, the team has scaled back on catering in order to nail down their operations. Grant and Dautaj want to get comfortable with one location before opening another in NYC. In a few months, Grant plans to seek out capital in hopes of opening another brick-and-mortar outpost within the next year. Their ultimate goal is branch out with territorial franchises across the U.S., and Grant is already getting inquiries. To build the brand faster, they want to offer prepped paninis through partnerships. Grant says they’re in talks, but he isn’t ready to divulge details yet.
Since he used to work in the area, Grant knew that if they could find a Midtown location word would spread quickly. Because so many people know Antico Noè, he figured there was a good chance that there would be at least one person in every company to validate the concept. He’s a had a number of customers prove his theory.
Even though Grant and Dautaj knew the brand would prove popular, the pair have been ecstatic with the initial feedback. “A lot of people have something personal with it, a history, a time of the best time in the their life,” says Dautaj.
Grant had the business acumen and know-how to capitalize on the sentimentality, yet he shares the same nostalgia as his customers. “It was the time of my life,” says Grant. “It will never be again.”