TRAVEL

Rome's Cocktail King Serves up the Eternal City

Patrick Pistolesi And The Drink Kong Team.  Credit: Alberto Blasetti

Patrick Pistolesi And The Drink Kong Team. Credit: Alberto Blasetti

Patrick Pistolesi knows Rome and its drinking scene. The renowned Irish-Italian barman grew up in the Eternal City and, for more than 20 years, he served up cocktails at the capital’s most iconic night spots. But summers spent in Dublin also gave the future tippler a taste of more casual pub culture from his Irish cousins. 

From no-name, no-frills boltholes to internationally recognized lounges, Pistolesi worked his way around bar counters to become one of Italy’s best bartenders and Rome’s reigning king of cocktails — his last name alone is one of the active ingredients in the evolution of Italy’s craft cocktail scene.

“The nuclear physics [of cocktails] is easy to learn,” Pistolesi said. “But it’s all about trust. You have to earn your clientele. They choose you for a reason.” 

But it’s never been about flair or difficulty for the 40-year-old mixologist. “You definitely need ability,” he said, “but you have to be curious, empathic, cheeky and smiley. Remember: people come to the bar to have a good time. Nobody wants a lesson after work.” Get a taste of Rome’s cocktail renaissance with a tippling tour of some of Pistolesi’s favorite places.

Drink Kong. Credit: Alberto Blasetti

Drink Kong

Creating an easy, slide-up-to-the-bar-after-work vibe is Pistolesi’s forte. For a taste of his talents, check out his 2018-opened, sci-fi-influenced cocktail lounge. 

With film series Blade Runner and Japanese manga comic books as inspiration, Kong is a 3,229-square-foot labyrinth of dark-hued lounges, backlit bars, neon lights, harlequin floors and arcade games — consider it an homage to Pistolesi’s love of neo-noir 1980s futurism.  

Drink Kong’s Customized Ice Cubes. Credit: Alberto Blasetti

Kong is all about trust. It’s a self-proclaimed “instinct bar,” with a menu based on flavor. Yes, you can get a negroni, but bartenders encourage you to talk about what you like and then trust them to choose one of the carefully crafted seasonal drinks, like Summer Kup, a gin cocktail with grape juice, sambuca (an Italian anise-flavored liqueur) and Scottish peaches. Keep your eye on the ice — smooth, large cubes imprinted with Kong’s logo.

For an ultra-exclusive experience, head through the shoji doors to the Omakase Room. This tiny, cherry-wood-paneled space features a wall of caged alcoves holding rare whiskeys and sake, and a 10-seat table reserved for private tastings and master classes.

Freni e Frizioni

According to Pistolesi, this casual spot in Trastevere is a “good street bar with a punk attitude.” 

Set up like a car repair shop, the street-side stop serves up great alt-rock-inspired drinks (The New York Dolls is a violet-hued tipple of vodka, lavender liqueur and pink grapefruit) and draws a crowd for aperitivi (and its free buffet of nibbles) between 7 and 10 p.m.   

“There are a lot of people diving in and out of the bar, and it’s a great scene,” Pistolesi said.

Tiki Tiki Roof 

“In Rome, you can’t miss the rooftops and there are several with great bars,” Pistolesi said. One of the mixologist’s recent favorites is this island-themed terrace at La Griffe MGallery by Sofitel near Termini Train Station. Come for the mojitos, but stay for the views. 

The Divinity Terrace Lounge Bar

Another of the bartender’s recommendations is this scenic spot atop The Pantheon Iconic Rome Hotel. The alfresco lounge sits eye-to-eye with Rome’s beloved ancient monument and lets the view inspire its drink menu with cocktails like Jupiter’s Martini, an ode to the supreme divinity of Roman mythology. 

Baccano

In need of a classic martini? Pistolesi heads to this Mediterranean bistro near the Trevi Fountain. The French-style brasserie is cozy and elegant with woven seats, leather booths and a well-stocked oyster bar.  

“Baccano is [a] more serious restaurant bar and the food is great,” he said, “but you’re there for the full, good martini that just comes with style.” His choice: the extra dry Baccano Martini with a twist of lemon.

Club Derrière

Pistolesi also grabs a seat at this back-alley speakeasy on Vicolo delle Coppelle, near Piazza Navona. Another secretive spot that requires a password, the tiny bar is all about style, from its exposed walls and leather chairs to the jazz tunes that permeate the moody atmosphere. Its innovative drinks rotate regularly, but past libations have included Floral and Vanity, a spirited combination of tequila, lime, elderflower and agave syrup.

The Jerry Thomas Project

Pistolesi’s late-night lineup always includes this vanguard speakeasy that is credited with introducing craft cocktails to the Eternal City.  

“This is the bar that made [Rome’s cocktail scene] happen,” Pistolesi said. “Before Jerry Thomas, no one was making or drinking quality cocktails.” 

To enter, you’ll need a reservation, the password and a nominal membership fee, but it’s a small price to pay. The bartenders here are some of the very best in the city, and they will change up the menu on a whim. 

If you can’t decide what to order, you can count on a mean negroni here.

This article first appeared in Forbes Travel, August 2019.

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Your Guide to the Venice Biennale

Every two years I make the annual pilgrimage to the Venice for the Venice Biennale, a six-month city-wide contemporary art festival. As an art fan, I am in heaven in my 24/7 full immersion art experience and as a freelance journalist, I am unstoppable, taking advantage as many platforms as possible- Instagram, Twitter and now my podcast- to bring my excitement into your hands. Join me for Forbes Travel, June 2019 exploring every corner and calle of Venice for the maximum Biennale experience.

Venice. Credit: Joseph Costa

Venice may be a fantasy archipelago of beautiful islands caught in centuries past, but every two years, the floating city transforms into the ultimate interactive contemporary art experience. The 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is a six-month event bringing contemporary artists from around the world to create boundary-pushing pieces that inhabit sites all over the city.  

Themed “May You Live in Interesting Times,” the 2019 edition (running through November 24) is an invitation to open your eyes to new perspectives. With 79 artists, 90 national pavilions and more than 20 collateral and pop-up events, there’s a lot to see. 

Of course, with so many options, not to mention Venice’s constant flood of usual tourists, visiting the Biennale can be a bit overwhelming. Luckily, with the guide we’ve drawn up, it won’t matter if you’re a first-time visitor or veteran art aficionado because you’ll know precisely what to see, where to stay and how to make the most of your experience.

Mastering the Basics

To make it easy, the first thing you need to do is head to the exhibition’s original 1895 venue: Giardini della Biennale, Venice’s verdant public gardens where 29 of the national pavilions reside. Boasting both historic architecture and new builds, the country-designated areas showcase handpicked artists interpreting the Biennale’s theme however they choose. 

Inside the Central Pavilion is a densely packed collective exhibition featuring pieces by artists invited by this year’s Biennale curator, London-based Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff.   

The Arsenale, Venice’s historic shipyard, is the other major Biennale venue. The building’s original corderie (a 1,000-foot-long hall used for rope making) houses some of the show’s more avant-garde pieces, including Michael Armitage’s beautiful paintings, large-format photographs by Martine Gutierrez and Alex da Corte’s interactive videos. 

You’ll also find satellite rooms hosting newer national pavilions, including first-time participants representing Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia and Pakistan.

Off-site Spectacles

No longer confined to just the Giardini and Arsenale, the Biennale extends across all six of Venice’s sestieri(neighborhoods), with national pavilions and pop-up exhibitions in private palazzi, museums and galleries.  

Start your off-site tour just outside Arsenale with Building Bridges, artist Lorenzo Quinn’s monumental sculpture made of six pairs of hands reaching together to the sky — it’s equally Instagrammable and thought-provoking. 

Next, head west to Canareggio to see “HILLARY: The Hillary Clinton Emails” by artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith. The politically charged exhibit showcases nearly 60,000 documents neatly printed, stacked and shelved on a very presidential desk on the first floor of contemporary supermarket Despar Teatro Italia. 

Continue your sightseeing tour in the central San Polo district, where contemporary glass installation The Spirit of Murano resides. Created by the Seguso family (Murano glass artisans since 1397), the piece is made of hand-blown glass handkerchiefs, each engraved with a short story or poem about Venice. Before you leave, you’ll be invited to write your own musings on cloth — a memento that will be added to the sculpture.

Visit the renowned Fondazione Prada for a retrospective on late artist Jannis Kounellis before stopping by the southern Dorsoduro neighborhood to take in works from another late talent in “The Death Of James Byers.”  

Last, but not least, visit the Lithuania Pavilion in Castello to see an award-winning 13-person opera, Sun & Sea (Marina), performed while the singers suntan on a “beach” made from sand imported from the Baltic Sea.

Where to Eat

Take a caffeine break at Gran Caffè Quadri, the magnificently historic and impeccably restored café in Piazza San Marco. The pastries, coffees and setting are incredible and, if sweet isn’t your flavor, come back in the afternoon for an Italian tradition: aperitivi

For heartier fare, check out Osteria Bancogiro, a tiny, rustic bacarò (restaurant) next to the Rialto Bridge, where you’ll find Biennale glitterati catching sun while sipping spritzes. 

Other tasty spots in the heart of Venice include Osteria da Carla, a modernly styled bolthole, or the more traditional Trattoria da Fiore, both in San Marco. 

For an intimate seafood-focused dinner near Santa Lucia train station, snag a seat at the tiny Osteria Trefanti.

If exploring the Gardens and Arsenale has left you too tired to trek across town, book a table at Biennale favorite Corte Sconta in Castello, the sestiere adjacent to the event venues. This popular seafood restaurant has a cornucopia of fresh catches (including moecche, local soft-shell crab) among its traditional revival plates, not to mention a gorgeous garden courtyard. 

Nearby, canal-side Local offers a contemporary version of the classic Venetian trattoria.  But for food as unforgettable as the Biennale’s displays, take a water taxi around the lagoon to the island of Mazzorbo to dine at renowned Venissa. Modern, chic and quiet, this secluded establishment is immersed in vineyards of Dorona di Venezia, one of the world’s rarest grapes.  The cuisine is a modern take on Venetian dishes using only island-grown and -fished ingredients. The result is a one-of-a-kind wine-paired meal that reflects Mazzorbo’s unique terroir. 

The Gritti Palace, A Luxury Collection Hotel. Credit: The Gritti Palace, A Luxury Collection Hotel

Where to Sleep

If you want to hit as many Biennale venues as possible, your best bet is staying central. Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Gritti Palace, A Luxury Collection Hotel, on the edge of the Grand Canal, is an ideal address. Its San Marco-adjacent location makes for easy walks to the Biennale Gardens and Arsenale, and its proximity to the San Marco vaporetto (waterbus) stop means convenient public transport access. The hotel even has a historic yacht you can reserve for a private cruise.  

Should you prefer to explore on foot, Forbes Travel Guide Recommended stays Hotel Londra Palace and Hotel Metropole Venice both offer stylish options less than a mile from Giardini della Biennale. 

But if you insist on Five-Star accommodations for resting your head, Belmond Hotel Cipriani is an ultra-plush retreat perched on the tip of nearby Giudecca Island.

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Ciao Bella is all about those creative minds who are revolutionizing culture and travel in Italy and around the Mediterranean.  New episodes every Monday. If you want to be part of Ciao Bella, support the podcast by visiting my Patreon page where you’ll find behind-the-scenes, for-your-eyes-only content. Give me your feedback and please rate, review  and share Ciao Bella on ITunes.

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{Podcast} Rome's King of Carbonara Luciano Monosilio

Catching up with the King of Carbonara, Luciano Monosilio at his restaurant Luciano Cucina. Photo: Darius Arya

LOOK, MA, I’VE LAUNCHED A PODCAST!

My mom has always told me I’m a fabulous talker, but really I am an incredibly curious listener who loves a good story. And I’m lucky- part of my job is meeting people and listening to what they have to say. Over the past 15 years, I’ve met incredible people doing incredible things that are changing Italy’s cultural landscape and updating the trite travel stereotypes of quaint trattorias and lots of mamma mias into something more realistic, cool and contemporary. Sometimes these conversations become great articles, other times they are edited to a sound bite and more often, they don’t make their way anywhere except to my dinner table. I’ve decided to remedy that by launching Ciao Bella, my intrepid travel and cultural podcast.

Me and Chef Luciano Monosilio, aka the only man who has ever made me cry…. for carbonara. Photo: Darius Arya

EPISODE ONE: THE KING OF CARBONARA

Luciano Monosilio is Italy’s reigning King of Carbonara and currently chef/owner of Luciano Cucina. From Albano Laziale to Michelin starred chef, in just a few years, Luciano put my favorite dish, carbonara, in the center of the table and in conversation all over Italy. And then he decided to step out of the box and literally turn the tables by going solo with his eponymous Luciano Cucina, a new gen trattoria subtly spreading the culinary renaissance all over Italy. I’m proud to have him as my first guest on Ciao Bella, and I’m even happier to know that his restaurant Luciano Cucina is just around the corner ffrom my home in Campo de’ Fiori. Join me as we talk carbonara, guanciale, Roma and Italy.

Chef Luciano Monosilio. Photo: Erica Firpo

Carbonara’s key ingredients. Photo: Erica Firpo

TUNE IN

…and keep listening as I sit down at the table with innovators, creators, artists, and more who are revolutionizing travel and culture in Italy and around the Mediterranean. New episodes drop every Monday with a light blog post and link to my Patreon page. What’s that? Patreon is a way for you to be a part of Ciao Bella, support the podcast and be surprised with behind-the-scenes, for-your-eyes-only content. Like I said, I love listening so if there is someone you think I should interview, let me know. No matter what, I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please rate, review and share Ciao Bella.

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