Shortly after the Beachbum’s arrival in Italy, he knew he was in the right country. “Work is a sacrifice for the Romans,” said his tour guide Leo Leuci. “In Naples they don’t say ‘We’re going to work,’ they say ‘Andiamo a fatiguare’ — ‘we’re going to be tired.’”
Leo is “Il Commodoro” of Rome’s Jerry Thomas Project, a cocktail collective obsessed with historic mixological arcana and devoted to converting Italy’s aperitif culture into a cocktail culture — which they do with religious zeal, even if it means flying the Bum overseas to help Tikify the bartenders of Rome and Milan. Leo’s fellow evangelists include Roberto Artusio, Luca “Freschello” Baioni, Antonio Parlapiano, and Alessandro Procoli (that’s Antonio and Alessandro pictured above left and right); in addition to conducting cocktail seminars throughout Italy, they all operate Rome’s Jerry Thomas Speakeasy, a bar which allows them to practice what they preach.
“The Speakeasy was born as a cry for help,” says Antonio: “Every bar we went into in the 1990s I found the same drinks, the same things.” Since 2009, the Speakeasy has countered this inertia with a menu of 10 bespoke drinks that changes every 15 days — over 200 different drinks a year, most with experimental ingredients hatched downstairs in what Alessandro calls “the batcave,” a basement lab carved out of bedrock circa 600 A.D. (former tenants included Benvenuto Cellini). On our visit, shelves lining the ancient stone walls groaned with vials of home-made bergamot bitters, elderflower extract, pomegranate shrub, peach-mango falernum, and the house “Vermouth Del Professore.”
Upstairs in the Roaring Twenties-themed saloon, Project members rotate as bartenders and hosts, with two behind the bar and another two taking orders on the floor — by far the more difficult job, as it entails explaining the ambitious, esoteric menu to a clientele more accustomed to Campari and soda than to Tiki drinks made with Bois Bandè-infused Guatemalan rum, or smoked camomile tea syrup, or Abbozzo Bitters.
We had to admit, we were also in the dark when it came to that last ingredient. Was it named after a bitter Italian clown? “Abbott’s bitters were declared unsafe by the 1906 pure food and drink act,” explained Alessandro. “This is our image of this extinct product: 17 different herbs and spices and flavor extracts.” And the name? “Abbozzo means ‘to be comfortably disappointed.’ When your friends make something better than you, you say ‘Ah. Abbozzo.’ You are happy — not envious.”
Such was our state of mind after sampling an homage to Don The Beachcomber by Antonio called Don’s Speakslow Swizzle. Recipe: in a tall glass muddle 6 mint leaves, then fill glass 2/3 to top with chopped ice. Add 1 ounce lime juice, 1/2 ounce each orgeat and passion fruit syrup, a little over 3/4 ounce each aged Martinique rum and Havana Club 3-year rum, 1/3 ounce dark overproof rum, and swizzle. Top with more ice and 1/6 ounce Angostura bitters. Garnish with mint and lime shell.
The Speakeasy wasn’t the only place in Rome where we found first-rate tropicals. In the bohemian Trastevere district, a former auto repair shop now houses a congenial neighborhood bar called Freni E Frizioni, where barman Christian Bugiada has six tiki drinks on the menu. He made us a textbook Missionary’s Downfall, followed by a sterling Mai Tai with a rum mix of Zacapa 23 and J. Bally Vieux.
On the other end of the economic spectrum, in the high-rent district between the Spanish Steps and Piazza del Popolo, the Hotel de Russie’s tony Stravinsky Bar also offers great tropicals. The delicious Rosemary Daiquiri by Gianluca Amato (pictured above) will set you back almost $30, but that price includes a parade of hot and cold gourmet canapés that could easily serve as your evening’s meal.
Milan, the second stop on the Bum’s seminar schedule, also showed signs of tropification. There were several tiki mugs on the bar top of Ristorante Lacerba, where head barman Umberto Consiglio made us pitch-perfect Daiquiris; at Luca E Andrea, a cafe fronting the Naviglio Grande canal, barman Luca Vezzali’s drink special proved even more interesting than the people-watching: a 1934 Zombie, faithfully re-created — right down to the housemade Don’s Mix.
This fortified us for a hike into Nottingham Forest, Milan’s most curious cocktail bar. The interior is even more of a non sequitur than the name: wall-mounted primitive African, East Asian, Oceanic, Caribbean, and Amazonian artifacts all contribute to the pan-exotic vibe of the small, narrow, wood-paneled room, which opened in 1970. Owner Dario Comino’s avant-garde drink menu is as off-the-wall as what’s on the walls. One drink contains detoxified curare leaves, while another features a venus flytrap garnish; a habanero-infused Daiquiri comes with an amuse-bouche of barbecued mezcal worms. This may sound like an outtake from Mondo Cane, but the anything-goes aesthetic is infectious, especially when it comes to hat-tricks like “The Thing”: a drink served in a specially made mug with two ear-like spouts (think Shrek’s head in porcelain). The Thing is two drinks in one: it tastes entirely different depending on which spout you drink from. (We’re not sure how, but we suspect it has something to do with misting the inside of each spout with a different tincture.)
If Dario Comini has a spiritual son, it’s Dennis Zoppi (pictured above). In the northern industrial town of Turin, across from the 11th-century Church of Our Lady of Consolation, Dennis offers an alternative form of consolation at his Smile Tree Bar. Here bottles hang from ceiling-mounted bungee cords, and the drink menu is an iPad with photos of his creations. The photos are necessary because it would take the proverbial thousand words to describe Smile Tree’s garnishes, which make Jean Cocteau and Max Reinhardt look like minimalists. The Gialisco (an ambrosial combination of mezcal, lime, cherry tomato juice and agave syrup) arrives nestled in a bed of emerald green moss, surrounded by hollowed-out cacao pods aglow with the aromatic embers of torched tobacco and mint leaves. It’s all artistically arranged on a long wooden board, from which rises a two-foot-high tree branch laden with ripe red lingonberries.
Our second drink, a pisco and Fernet Branca potion called the Cilenó, was served on a thick round of pine trunk, on which tiny zombies made from peanut shells were posed in an epic battle around the glass. With Smile Tree’s “too much is not enough” philosophy, we wondered aloud, might the bar also embrace the fire and ice theatrics of Donn Beach and Trader Vic? Dennis and his collaborators, Lorenzo Scaglia and Antonio Masi, were preoccupied with arranging a surrealistic cocktail tableau on a white marble plank, but Smile Tree hostess Manuela Albertelli responded by flashing an electric grin: on their next menu, she said, “Expect Tiki.”
You might not expect Tiki as you enter Bologna’s Portico Della Morte — the “Plaza of Death” where plague victims were bought to die in the 12th century — but Tiki you will find at Nu Lounge Bar, the sprawling restaurant that now takes up most of the Portico’s real estate. “Tiki is serenity, Tiki is freedom, Tiki is to do what you want,” offers Nu Lounge co-owner and mixologist Daniele Dalla Polla (pictured above). If what you want is a vodka and red bull, so be it, Daniele will serve you one. But you will miss out on some of the best tropical drinks this side of paradise, painstakingly prepared and artfully presented.
Like the Jerry Thomas Project crew, Daniele and his bartenders (Matteo Palladino, who sports a moai tiki tattoo; Gianni Zottola, who favors tiki-print ties; and Gianfranco “Tutto Bene,” whose apron features vintage Hawaiian menu graphics) make many of their own ingredients. They employ 15 different kinds of sugar in their syrups, and draw from a voluminous spice rack for infusions.
The result is a a tonka bean Daiquiri accented with essence of white peeled licorice, a ginger-vanilla Ti Punch served in a frosted mini-decanter for one, a Spiced Piña Colada poured into a glass that’s been smoked with burnt cinnamon and clove, a Maori Sour sweetened with green tea-aromatized sugar, and a Moscow Mule topped with a sorbet of cucumber and pink peppercorn. On festival weekends Nu Lounge serves 1,000 covers a night, but even at the height of such pandemonium your drink will be meticulously presented, perhaps in a crystal skull, or accompanied by an animatronic chirping toucan, or half-hidden in a cloud of dry-ice vapor. “Smoke, flame, we do all the cinema,” says Daniele, who thinks nothing of serving customers drinks in valuable vintage Tiki mugs from his personal collection (we were gobsmacked when our Pukka Punch arrived in a rare, well-nigh irreplaceable 1950s St. Louis Mainlander mug).
But for sheer “cinema,” nothing tops Nu Lounge’s signature Aqua de Mai Tai (pictured above). When you order it you are presented with a large leather-bound book. When you open the book, you find a corked perfume bottle resting inside. And inside the bottle is your Mai Tai, which you pour into two antique glasses. Recipe: 1 1/2 ounces white Puerto Rican rum, 1 ounce Añejo rum, 1 ounce lime juice, 1 ounce fresh pineapple juice, 1/2 ounce falernum, 1/2 ounce Cointreau, 2 dashes rhubarb bitters and 1 dash Brooklyn Hemispherical bitters.
“Ah,” we thought after our first sip. “Abbozzo.”