The first drink I ever ordered for myself was a glass of vermouth at the age of fifteen, a scene completely robbed from Madeleine L'Engle's book Camilla, where the 15-year-old protagonist Camilla Dickinson daintily drinks the clear liquor in an attempt to be adult. I downed it like a glass of water (mistake) and thought I was dying. But from that moment on, I liked the idea of leaning forward on the bar, talking to the bartender and holding a pretty glass in my hand for an hour. And I liked drinks with names.
After years of standing at the bar, I realise that I can geo-tag the most significant eras of my life to any drink menu-- Long Island Iced Tea means college in Philadelphia, a Mojito is Miami, the Cosmopolitan, Rob Roy and Gimlet are Los Angeles, the Spritz will always be Venice and last week's Manhattan is Rome. As in most cases, wine, prosecco and franciacorta were my Italy-- it has not been until recently that cocktails have appeared on my mental mixology chronology in Rome. It's not that Italy was late to the game, it's just that I was too preoccupied with grapes and the like to step up to the bar.
Italy makes cocktails, and I am particularly fond of discovering where they make them well. Like most of you, I have my list of go-to places where I am assured that the Manhattan, Negroni and Martinez I will be drinking will be perfect, and the bartenders even more so. But I am always looking for more. Last month, Rome's Micca Club hosted Diageo Reserve World Class 2013 semi-finals for mixology and I spent an afternoon watching 12 men and women compete to be called the best bartender.
Competitors from Italy's southern regions-- Tuscany to Sicily- presented cocktails and atmosphere inspired by Hollywood's golden age with a side of the Rat Pack. From nervous and serious to joking and flirty, the bartenders brought it full force. Drinks were well researched and artistically prepared. Presentation included a bit of story-telling and Hollywood/Italy history. Although I was rooting for neighbourhood favorite Antonio Parlapiano from Jerry Thomas Project, I was happy to see Micca Club's Daniele Gentili win-- he mixed charm, humor and gin to create "Frankie Loves Rome", a delicious, cappuccino-styled cocktail of Tanqueray No. 10, meringue, lime and Frangelico. Semi-finals continue in Milan at the end of April, and then Gentile and the other semi-finalist will throw down cocktails in Madrid for title of Italy's best bartender. That finalist will then compete with 31 bartenders from around the world in July's World Class Bartending Final in Barcelona.
It's beginning to look like bartenders may be this year's celebrity chefs-- a kind of Cocktail (yep, I'm thinking Tom Cruise) reboot where bartenders are artists, bars are beautiful and the stemware is divine. I say Cin Cin! Here are my suggestions for best cocktails in Rome (for Forbes' Startle.com).
Here are my favorite bars in Rome for Forbes.