Saturday Night in Rome

In place of Rome's once mundane drinking establishments lurks a new generation of wine bars, craft cocktail counters and a quickly growing army of craft beer pubs.

The view from Janiculum Hill at 6 p.m. looking out over Roman domes and rooftops, clear on to the suburban hills. Someone build a bar here!

An early crowd gathers outside Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà (known affectionately as "Macchè") at 7 p.m. In a few hours the bar and street will be packed, the cobblestones dappled with beer drinkers.

Macchè owner Manuele Colonna pours Madamin, an Oud Bruin-style ale from Piedmont's Loverbeer brewery.

Franconian lager flows freely on both sides of the bar.

Improvised seating outside Macchè.

7:30 p.m. at the Ponte Sisto, a 15th-century bridge connecting the Trastevere neighborhood to Via Giulia, a 16th-century cobblestone street where the newly minted D.O.M Hotel resides.

D.O.M. bartender Marco Fabbiano atop the hotel's rooftop terrace making a Tascan (Hendrick's gin, grappa, lemon-infused vermouth and rosemary).

Fabbiano's Parfum (Tanqueray gin, Bénédictine, fresh lemon, simple syrup, "scent of the forest" homemade bitters, orange flower water, black tea and bergamot mist) photographed on the roof just before sunset.

8 p.m. on a Renaissance-era apartment block on the Via Giulia, a former Papal promenade.

At the seven-month-old wine bar Litro, server Andrea Baroni opens a magnum of the house wine and serves it with locally cured meats, like rolled pancetta and cured pork jowl.

After spending time in the Carafagna vineyard on Giglio, an island off of Tuscany, co-owner Maurizio Bistocchi snagged a few cases of their wines for Litro's list. Here, “Rosso Saverio,” a field blend of a dozen autochthonous grapes, is served chilled.

The Altar of the Fatherland unification monument in Piazza Venezia seen at the golden hour, en route to wine bar La Barrique.

Outdoor seating at La Barrique on Via del Boschetto, a main artery slicing through the Monti district. Angiolino Maule's "I Maseri," a blend of garganega and trebbiano grapes.

A multitasking regular smokes, drinks and texts outside the wine bar.

For admittance to the speakeasy-style Jerry Thomas Project, state the password (an answer to a trivia question published on their website) through the sliding peephole.

The late-night scene inside the bar.

A bartender making the Vecchio Stile, The Jerry Thomas Project's house twist on the Old Fashioned (bourbon, bois bandé-infused rum, unrefined cane sugar, bergamot bitters and toasted cocoa beans).

When I moved to Rome nearly a dozen years ago, I was hardly a sophisticated drinker, but even my younger, recently graduated self cringed at Rome’s drinking options: tooth-enamel-threatening trash like Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezer, bad Mojitos, Heineken, Peroni and only a handful of remotely interesting wine bars. The city’s main drinking destinations—Trastevere, Ostiense, Testaccio and Campo de’ Fiori—were bastions of mediocrity.

Even just a few years ago, the prospect of finding craft cocktails and artisanal wines in one place was unthinkable. But things have begun to evolve—slowly. Romans who have gone abroad to travel or find work have returned with changed palates, new skills and a real desire to drink well and share their discoveries with others.

On the cocktail front, the opening of The Jerry Thomas Project in 2010 signaled a major change. With space for just 35 in its single, password-protected room on the ground floor of a 500-year-old building in the historical center of Rome, it became the city’s first, serious craft cocktail bar. Over the past four years, the staff has poured stellar pre-Prohibition-era classic cocktails, while simultaneously developing their own inspired drinks and style.

The slow creep of a serious cocktail culture has even reached the hotel bar. While Rome’s hotel watering holes once appealed mainly to tourists after a stiff drink, places like the newly opened D.O.M. Hotel—with its rooftop bar overlooking an ancient Roman archaeological site still under excavation—are attracting a well-heeled Roman audience in search of sophisticated flavors. Built within the walls of a 15th-century palace, D.O.M. typifies the constant shift and juxtaposition between Rome’s new, old and very, very old.

But Litro, which opened late last year, provides perhaps the most convincing proof of Rome’s improved drinking scene. Essentially a neighborhood café, Litro serves snacks and drinks all day long in the quiet residential district of Monteverde Vecchio. But it also happens to sport central Italy’s largest mezcal list, as well as a varied collection of natural wines.

Across town in the quiet, local Monti neighborhood, La Barrique offers a similar list of natural and artisanal wines, as well as a full menu of cold and hot dishes. It’s a place that attracts mostly “Monticiani” (Monti dwellers), but in any other city La Barrique’s collection of Italian, French and Austrian wines would be worth crossing town for.

While the improved options for cocktails and wine have become part of a growing trend, nothing matches Rome’s craft beer boom. Across the Tiber, in Trastevere, Manuele Colonna’s pub, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà (Macchè for short), which opened in 2001, has become a beacon for the movement. A diehard beer enthusiast—his catchphrase is quanno moro vojo esse fermentato (“when I die I want to be fermented”)—Colonna and his crew were among the first to reject European industrial brews, providing craft alternatives and cultivating a beer drinking subculture. Macchè’s location in Trastevere, a center of Roman nightlife, has allowed them to bring their message to a larger audience.

In an effort to show just how far Rome’s drinking scene has come, I hit the cobblestones with Daniel Krieger one Saturday night to introduce him to the city’s avant-garde, from Monteverde to Monti.

The Itinerary

Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà | Via Benedetta 25
Go for: Italian sour ales, small batch Franconian beers, limited edition domestic and international brews.

D.O.M. Hotel | Via Giulia 131
Go for: Cocktails at sunset at the rooftop bar.

Litro | Via Fratelli Bonnet 5 (Monteverde Vecchio)
Go for: A mezcal cocktail, a rotating list of spumanti sur lie, boozy sorbets made to order.

La Barrique | Via del Boschetto 41b
Go for: Outrageously affordable bottles of natural wines from Italy and France and an ample wines by the glass list.

The Jerry Thomas Project | Vicolo Cellini 30
Go for: Pre-Prohibition inspired drinks, punch of the day, vermouth cocktails.

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  • Adrian Reynolds

    Stunning photos.

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  • Robyn Owen

    Katie apparently hasn’t been in Roma all that long, if she wrote re: Janiculum Hill / Gianicolo “somebody build a bar here!” She would know that every summer there is a Pop-up bar directly beside “Fontana dell’Acqua Paola”, with music and night life every bit as worthy as the same spots she repeatedly writes about in every publication. I’m not sure how long she’s vissuto a Roma, ma posso certamente vi dico che non è stato abbastanza a lungo per ricordare il vero “Drunken Ship”, “Sloppy Sam”,
    “On The Rox Testaccio e Trastevere”,
    per citarne solo alcuni ecc., dove la maggior parte dei baristi, proprietari di bar,
    camerieri, gli studenti, i turisti, e veri romani “dopo ore” beve, per socializzare, ecc. Con tutto il rispetto,
    quando lei è stato qui 11+ anni ed è sposata con un italiano che è nato e cresciuto nel centro,
    e ha lavorato in vari gradi del “bar business/ ristorante”, poi lei può professa sapere Roma …
    fino a quando poi, leggere i suoi giudizi con un grano di sale…mi dispiace…