Finding Paradiso in Omaha

 My favorite Omaha dining room. Photo courtesy of Dana Damewood.

My favorite Omaha dining room. Photo courtesy of Dana Damewood.

Dante was the first Omaha place I fell in love with, and it’s where I take visitors when I want to prove to them the Midwest isn’t all red meat and yellow cheese. 

In fact, it was sitting on the restaurant’s sun-drenched terrace, glass of passamante in hand, and perfect branzino on plate, that I was first inspired to start a blog about people who bring world-class talent and ideas back to their hometowns.

Dante chef/owner Nick Strawhecker grew up in Omaha, but traveled around Europe whilst living in the UK in his early teens. Those years, coupled with his Italian grandmother’s good home cooking, started his love affair with la bella cucina. After graduating from Omaha’s Skutt High School, he headed off to culinary school at Johnson & Wales. “I was the last of the generation before it became cool to be a chef,” he says. “I’m very proud of being old school.”

 When chef Nick Strawhecker first opened Dante in 2008, West Omaha diners weren't accustomed to seeing oxtail and pork belly on the menu. "Now, I'm surprised they don't have oxtail at McDonald's," he laughs. Photo courtesy of Dana Damewood.

When chef Nick Strawhecker first opened Dante in 2008, West Omaha diners weren't accustomed to seeing oxtail and pork belly on the menu. "Now, I'm surprised they don't have oxtail at McDonald's," he laughs. Photo courtesy of Dana Damewood.

After a stint working and going to university in Flagstaff,  Nick was off to Italy’s Piedmont region to study at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, followed by a stage at Il Falconiere in Cortona, where he started out folding pasta in the kitchen of famed chef Michele Brogioni. “Men don’t fold pasta in Italian kitchens,” he says, remembering the jibes of his co-workers, and sharing the job with an old Italian nonna, who spent her days in the Michelin-starred kitchen with a cigarette dangling from her mouth.

Nick’s other responsibilities at Il Falconiere included going out to pick produce from the restaurant’s garden every day — he was farm-to-table before that was cool, too. “In Italy, what we call farm-to-table is just a way of life. Local farmers would come to the back door of the kitchen and say, ‘We have this pig for you, we have these chickens for you, today.’ And that’s what we’d cook.”

After working his way up the kitchen ranks at prestigious restaurants in Chicago and Philadelphia, Nick decided to come back to Omaha to open his own place, one where the supply chain was reminiscent of the way things were done in Cortona. 

In the eight years since Dante opened, Nick has built relationships with several local farmers and producers, including Branched Oak Farm, Nishnabotna Naturals and Truebridge Farms, who stock the kitchen with local cheeses, produce and free-range meat. “Hyperseasonality is the most fun to me,” Nick says. “It nauseates me to think of eating fresh tomatoes in January."

 Jaime, who has been with Dante since the beginning, is almost always at the pizza station. During the warmer months, the bar in front of him is heaped with luscious tomatoes, fragrant basil, or whatever else is in season at that very moment. "It's been nonstop nettles and sun chokes recently," said Nick when I spoke to him in mid-April. A few days later, the  Facebook page  heralded the season's first asparagus.

Jaime, who has been with Dante since the beginning, is almost always at the pizza station. During the warmer months, the bar in front of him is heaped with luscious tomatoes, fragrant basil, or whatever else is in season at that very moment. "It's been nonstop nettles and sun chokes recently," said Nick when I spoke to him in mid-April. A few days later, the Facebook page heralded the season's first asparagus.

He feels that drinking should be seasonal, too (“Rosé in summer. Whiskey in winter.”), and credits general manager and sommelier Adam Weber, Nebraska’s only certified Italian Wine Professional, with developing the restaurant’s wine program, which includes regular classes, tastings and meet-the-maker events, as well as helping to maintain the restaurant's unpretentious atmosphere.

"I don't like stuffy places," Nick says, while acknowledging that he likes ignorant service even less. "The staff has to know a lot to work here, but we have a good time, too."

Behind The Scenes...

 Dante's famous wood-fired pizza oven. Nick says that humidity is the biggest factor in perfecting the restaurant's authentic Neapolitan crust -- so much so, that his team adjusts the recipe three times a year to account for Nebraska's weather changes.

Dante's famous wood-fired pizza oven. Nick says that humidity is the biggest factor in perfecting the restaurant's authentic Neapolitan crust -- so much so, that his team adjusts the recipe three times a year to account for Nebraska's weather changes.

 After the wood-oven, Nick says the pasta machine is his second-favorite kitchen tool. No more girly pasta-folding!

After the wood-oven, Nick says the pasta machine is his second-favorite kitchen tool. No more girly pasta-folding!

 Nick riffs on an age-old comparison about Italian sports cars to describe his cappuccino machine: bellissima, but with a mind of its own.

Nick riffs on an age-old comparison about Italian sports cars to describe his cappuccino machine: bellissima, but with a mind of its own.

 "You're late... they're already drinking in Naples."

"You're late... they're already drinking in Naples."

 Dante is Nebraska's only restaurant that has been certified as authentic by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, which is basically the governing body of Neapolitan pizza abroad. Nick says that he experimented with 50 different types of tomatoes before finding the one he wanted to use for Dante's pizza. 

Dante is Nebraska's only restaurant that has been certified as authentic by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, which is basically the governing body of Neapolitan pizza abroad. Nick says that he experimented with 50 different types of tomatoes before finding the one he wanted to use for Dante's pizza. 

Cover photo courtesy of Dana Damewood