The Season of Dante
Nebraska-based restaurant named Pizza Today’s Independent Pizzeria of the Year
Starting a culinary movement turned out to be just the beginning for chef Nick Strawhecker. It is a rarity to lead an entire movement in a city and also be able to sustain it and expand upon it.
It was seven years ago that Pizza Today visited a fresh-faced Strawhecker, a young chef who had ventured out on his own with a VPN-certified Neapolitan pizzeria concept that the city of Omaha and the state of Nebraska had never experienced. His restaurant Dante put Omaha on the culinary map for its Italian pizza style and concentrated focus on using hyper-seasonal ingredients from local producers.
Strawhecker came onto a crowded Omaha food scene with esteemed credentials. He studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. After a stint at Northern Arizona University, he traveled to Italy to complete a Master Chef’s Program at The Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in the Peidmont region where he worked at a Michelin-rated restaurant in Tuscany. That experience laid the foundation for Strawhecker’s approach to food. He went on to work with world-renowned chefs in Chicago and Philadelphia before returning to his hometown of Omaha to open Dante in 2009.
Fast forward, it’s 2019 and Pizza Today has stepped back into Dante to revisit the restaurant as the 2019 Independent Pizzeria of the Year.
Neapolitan pizza is now a mainstay in Omaha and Dante has a decade of success under its belt. The restaurant continues to draw regional and national exposure. But Strawhecker has never been one to rest on his laurels. Dante has constantly evolved. “When we opened, it was really just focused on Neapolitan pizza with a small Italian wine list,” he says. “When we opened, we had TVs and a bocce court. I didn’t want to focus on the fine dining aspect. I didn’t want to do pasta. I didn’t want to do all these things.
“Then I wanted to evolve,” he says. “I started getting bored, frankly, and I wanted to do more things. We started making pasta in house. We started bringing in more proteins. We evolved the menu in a big way over the years. We added more cocktails. We really, really started focusing on Italian wines. We removed TVs. We removed the bocce court. We added catering early on with our mobile oven. We really doubled down on locality and hyper-seasonality and that is deep, deep in our core and in our roots now.”
Strawhecker has expanded his resume to include the newly-opened sister restaurant Forno, which features its own menu of Neapolitan pizzas, pastas, mains and Italian wines in the Blackstone District of Omaha.
Every aspect of Strawhecker’s businesses center on ingredient-driven dishes and his food philosophy behind them. “My philosophy is to try to stay within the seasons or hyper-seasonality as much as possible while staying local,” he says. “You will never see a fresh tomato at this restaurant in January. You’re only going to find fresh tomatoes in our restaurants when they are happening locally. And that goes for a lot of our fruits and vegetables.”
Strawhecker sources produce and proteins from more than 25 farmers in the Midwest and sustainably caught domestic seafood partners. Finding local products has become less cumbersome than in the beginning when he worked directly with several dozens of area growers. Today, Dante still coordinates with local farmers like Carl, an arugula producer who dropped by and shared his passion for produce during Pizza Today’s visit. Strawhecker’s restaurants also use one source for many of its ingredients, Lone Tree Foods. “It’s a centralized aggregate, if you will,” he says. “Lone Tree represents, does the sales and billing, distribution for about 40 different farms within about 100 miles.” Strawhecker simply views lists of available in-season items early in the week and products are delivered in one shipment on Thursdays.
Justin Gilmore, who has risen through the ranks of Dante to become director of operations for both restaurants, says even with the restaurants’ food focus, its food costs stay in line. Both restaurants remain steady in the mid-20 percent range.
Neapolitan-style pizza is a perfect vessel to present local, hyper-seasonal ingredients. “I can’t imagine doing any other pizza other than Neapolitan,” he says. “Cooking with wood is ingrained in my soul. It’s really all I want to work with.
“My roots are definitely Neapolitan,” he says. “The diversity of ingredients you can use with Neapolitan pizza and the living, breathing thing that is a wood oven is ideal to me. It’s ideal to my style of cooking.”
Seasonality shines with revolving menus. Strawhecker admits that he has thousands of menus for Dante and Forno. Daily specials menus showcase delicate, seasonal favorite heirloom tomatoes and are featured raw on the Basilico pizza Napoletana with basil pesto and mozzarella. Another special is the Rucola, featuring arugula, wood-roasted mushrooms, tomato sauce and mozzarella.
Strawhecker is able to source some ingredients all year. Those pizzas and other dishes become menu mainstays, like the Giacomo (named after his son Jack). It’s a red-sauced pizza with smoked provolone, soppressata, Calabrian chili and mint. There is also the Cortona with farm egg, soppressata, olive, chili, wood-roasted mushroom, garlic and mozzarella.
Dante has earned its reputation as an authentic Italian experience. Strawhecker puts the same passion into scratch-made pastas and main dishes. He showcased some of Dante’s seasonal specialties. He was meticulous as he plated a ricotta tortellini with corn sauce, roasted corn, pea tendrils, popcorn and smoked paprika.
Each week, Strawhecker highlights seasonal ingredients used on each special in a video shared on the restaurants’ social media. He and his wife, Michelle, share social media duties. He also works with a public relations firm for regional and national exposure.
Dante has Omaha’s only all-Italian wine list with over 200 labels. Wine accounts for nearly 35 percent of sales.
As he presents a wood-roasted Santa Barbara Halibut with wood-roasted shishito peppers, okra and bottarga, he shares his recent travels to Alaska. He witnessed firsthand where his fresh seafood comes from. “I had been selling this one type of salmon for three or four years and I’m really hot on it,” he says. “It’s so delicious and our guests really love it. To be able to see it, we’re actually selling fish that I was on the boat on that caught that fish. The staff really love that and the guests love hearing about that.”
“Thirst for learning about food is just extremely important to me and learning where food comes from,” he says.
Every piece of food at Dante has a story. It is that story that has captivated Omaha diners for a decade. From an ingredient’s origin to plate, Strawhecker and his team translate its story to customers.
“We do line up every day at 4:30 p.m. at both restaurants,” he says. “At that time, we talk about the different changes on the menu. A good example is last week, we had a new fish in that I hadn’t worked with at all. We tried it with the staff and we came up with our own conclusion of the flavor of the fish. Then we talk about it together and we come up with general conclusion of how we would describe it.”
Staff meetings are critical to Dante’s success. “We talk about menu changes, counts on menu, VIPs, always some kind of wine education and general announcements.
With a staff of 40 at Dante and Forno, Strawhecker says, “I’m very big into communication, especially communication with managers, and then what we call cascading messaging to the rest of our staff. That is the best way for our staff to describe and be able to sell things to our guests.”
Many on Strawhecker’s team have been with him since the beginning, including Hymie, who’s in charge of all dough production and Dante’s pizza station and Dave, who oversees the kitchen. “That is 20 years of experience at Dante which make it a lot easier on me that I can work on the creative things,” he says to grow his business.
It’s mesmerizing to watch Strawhecker interact with his kitchen team. He’s soft spoken, while keeping sous chefs on their toes. He says he’s glad that he’s of the generation that balanced new and old school. “I started at the right time for maybe being a leader in Omaha in kitchens and restaurants,” he says. “My philosophy is to be ultra hands on, make clear exactly what the expectations are, live those expectations yourself every day, show people exactly what you want done, keep on growing and expanding your menu, keep it interesting and just treat people with respect, the way that you would want to be treated. I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of great people that want to learn, that care about food as much as I do, come through our back door and work with us.”
Strawhecker has cultivated a number of young chefs who have gone on to excel in their careers and even open restaurants. He has brought past kitchen talent back for alumni series dinners.
He capitalizes on his strengths and passion for food education in the restaurants’ community outreach. Dante has partnered with Omaha Public Schools to take third graders out to a farm that produced Dante’s fresh mozzarella. “They would see the cattle in the field grazing,” he says. “Then they would bring the cattle in, they would milk the cattle and they would do a demo on how they produced mozzarella and then they would bring the cheese out to our mobile ovens and we would stretch dough and make pizzas and use the mozzarella that they helped make.”
Dante also raises money for Saving Grace, a perishable food rescue dedicated to feeding the hungry.
Pizza Today also visited Forno, a sister restaurant that’s different from 10-year-old Dante yet embodies the tenants that his first restaurant founded in Omaha. It has a story of its own that reveals the realities of being a successful restaurateur — of knowing when to try something new and when to switch directions.
Two years ago, Strawhecker started planning the opening of a second restaurant, Dante Pizzeria Napoletana. At the same time, fast-casual pizza was surging across the U.S. “What Dante Pizzeria Napoletana was was an offshoot of Dante — pizza focused, value driven, counter-service concept,” Strawhecker says. “It was like the greatest hits of Dante. It had a lower price point. At first it was great, we’re going to open several of these but then it just didn’t have repeat business and revenue declined.”
Strawhecker had foraged out into the fast-casual pizza market ultimately deciding that the community wanted what he was known for. He closed Dante Pizzeria Napoletana and worked with Gilmore to re-envision the space as a full-service restaurant. Forno opened in April. It’s a concept that is truer to the foundation of Nick Strawhecker’s restaurant ethos.
Dante Pizzeria Napoletana had a static menu, while Forno’s menu is constantly changing. Forno has its own distinctive personality and infusion of culinary uniqueness, like Tigelle. One of the only imported Italian Tigelle presses in the country, the shareable features small flatbread that diners split open and stuff with divine house condiments, various meats and cheeses.
Now, both restaurants are moving in the right direction. Strawhecker says, his focus moving forward is to “sustain that, keep the numbers in line, keep the prime costs in line and stay a leader in Omaha and in the Midwest.”
Denise Greer is executive editor at Pizza Today.