The Native Companion who I reference from time to time in posts on this blog doesn't (yet) share my enthusiasm for wine, or not to the same extent. Her thing is cocktails, for which I happily also have a minor thing, if not to the same extent.* So she and I had made a deal: she'd endure my relentless quests to locate good restaurants, and my eternal dithering over their wine lists, if I'd endure a potential goose chase in search of good cocktails in Rome.
"Good luck" and "No chance in hell" were the responses the NC and I received from those we contacted in our preliminary cocktail research. It appeared there simply wasn't a scene in Rome. Even our friend L, a native Roman born-and-raised, professed to know of no good cocktail locations in the city. Nevertheless she agreed to accompany us to the nearby Jerry Thomas Project, a speak-easy tip-off the NC had received from one of her bosses in Paris.
It was twilight - about 19h30 - when we knocked on a door that said "Prof. Jerrj Thomas" (sic), on a nothing / nobody street not far from where we'd been sitting in the Piazza de Campo dei' Fiori. After a moment's delay, the door cracked open and a beautiful woman wearing a sweatshirt and enormous insectoid false eyelashes asked us in English what we were doing there.
The NC told her we were thinking of getting a drink. The woman said they didn't open until midnight. We said okay, we'd return later that evening, and the woman bid us goodnight, closing the door.
We were wandering off, halfway up the street, when the woman called after us, "How did you find out about us?"
The NC explained that she helped run a relatively high-profile cocktail bar in Paris, at which point the insect lady - whose name, finally, was Chiara (sp?) - was joined by co-owner / bartender / her boyfriend Rob, and they invited us in to check out the bar before it opened.
It was plain by this time that we'd located some kindred spirits, as it were.
It turns out the Jerry Thomas Project is not necessarily a bar, or not officially. I think they're listed as a cultural association of some kind,** offering bartending and mixology*** courses. (The name of the venture refers to an historically important bartender called Jerry Thomas, who wrote a cocktail ür-text called The Bar-Tender's Guide.) They open their speak-easy at midnight - every night of the week, I seem to remember, though that seems almost implausible given how hidden the place is. Ordinarily a password is needed to gain entry; they don't reserve tables; maximum capacity is just thirty people on a given night.
The room itself looked like what it probably was - an earnestly and artfully redecorated living room. All the wall-mounted lights wore hats. Chiara (sp?) batted her wild lashes and insisted we come back later on, when they'd all be dressed up in full Prohibition-Era regalia.
This theatrical streak is a defining feature of contemporary cocktail geekery, and one that separates it pretty starkly from wine appreciation. Put simply, cocktail afficionados, as a demographic, really dig dressing up. It's like suspenders are part of the bar-kit, right beside the shaker, mixing glass, and jigger. Sometimes I forget how strange this habit is. Can you imagine, for instance, a sommelier arriving at your table dressed as a medieval wine steward? A monk? I have met somms who insist on sporting metal tastevins around their neck, but they tend to be monumental ponces, whereas one can't generalize so freely about barmen in suspenders.
I suspect the costumey element in cocktail culture is rooted in a kind of party-planner mindset, integral to cocktail bars. It's about dreaming up themes, excuses to celebrate. Since you don't drink cocktails with meals, there is far less of the staid gastronomic self-seriousness you find in wine culture; what remains is the impulse to drink and have fun, often in costume. It is why I like cocktail geeks.
When we returned later that evening - after a dull martini at Freni e Frizioni, and an enjoyable but anticlimactic meal at Da Enzo - the Jerry Thomas Project was in full swing.
Chiara (sp?) showed us to a table and we pored over the cocktail list.
|Our friend D doesn't drink. "THIS IS WORTH DRINKING," I seem to be saying in this photo.|
In short order a little basket of tasty tramezzini arrived. I found this utterly perfect, even though I was still stuffed from dinner and couldn't make a dent in them.
What I liked was the simple Italian-ness of the gesture, without which a bar like this runs the danger of being merely an homage to an idea of America. Cocktails, like Americans, are famously transplantable; having no great history of their own, they cleave to those of other cultures. So it seems justifiable to arrive in Rome, a major city, seeking a cocktail bar that is truly Roman, even if cocktails themselves are a relatively recent arrival. (The Jerry Thomas Project itself has only been open a matter of months, from what I understand.)
I wasn't disappointed. The drinks were distinct, they made judicious use of Italian ingredients, and they were prepared in accordance with a serious international standard. And the bar's other mustachioed bartender / owner, Antonio, had a garrulous love for his craft that you don't often find outside Italy. He sold me on a drink they called "Between the Bronx," a bourbon-based drink with house bitters, mandarancio, Noilly Prat, and Cynar. It hit the digestivo spot nicely. Later I had something called "Autumn Leaves," a rather richer, weightier creation whose only flaw, in my estimation, was an excess of raisins used in infusing the supposedly walnut-infused gin it contained. Raisins are a little overpowering.
The NC ordered something off the menu, a relatively obscure classic she likes called a Corpse-Reviver. It's a blend of gin, Cointreau, Lillet blanc, lemon juice, and absinthe - but in this instance I perceived it also served as a kind of signal on the NC's part, through which she and the owners / bartenders acknowledged a shared familiarity with relatively obscure classic cocktails. I do this sort of thing too. In fact it's indirectly how I first became friends with the NC. I was at her bar all the time, demanding Vespas and Greenpoints.
I can wholeheartedly endorse this practice, provided the bar is not too full and your bartender knows what's what.
* At a former workplace I was at one point unexpectedly saddled with the role of bar manager, in addition to sommelier and just-plain-manager, which new responsibility had me working alongside and ostensibly managing a bunch of former Death n Co / Milk n Honey bartenders. I wound up providing conceptual help, if anything; all the real hand-skills were theirs. Later I had some fun designing the cocktail list at an Irish pub in Boston.
** As a side note, I noticed while walking around town that the Italian abbreviation for "Associazione Culturale" is "Ass. Cult."
*** I love cocktails. I have a problem with the term 'mixology.' Not to belittle the serious scientific effort that great bartenders and cocktail specialists put into their drinks - the term just sounds like it's overcompensating for itself. The way the academic suffix is sutured onto the rear-end of the humble word "mix" implies a weird insecurity about the profession as a whole. It's like chefs going around demanding to be called gastronomists. What's wrong with being merely a chef? Merely a bartender? Those are two very respectable professions.
The Jerry Thomas Project
30, Vicolo Cellini
N.D.P. in Roma: Obikà
N.D.P. in Roma: Da Enzo
N.D.P. in Roma: Freni e Frizioni
N.D.P. in Roma: Roscioli Restaurant
N.D.P. in Roma: Roscioli Bakery
Izraël, 75004, a treasure trove of strange potential cocktail ingredients
N.D.P. in London: ECC London
N.D.P. in London: 69 Colebrooke Row