Dieci euro,” the cashier barked at me during a recent transaction at a friend’s birthday party in a basement bar near Campo de’ Fiori. I had ordered an Old-Fashioned, and in typical Italian bar style, I had to pay for the drink at the register—only managers or owners deal directly with money—then bring my receipt to the bartender, who would fashion my drink.
I handed over a pink-hued ten-euro bill, deposited my receipt on the bar and requested my desired cocktail. Then I watched as the bartender dumped a few tablespoons of sugar from a pour bottle into a rocks glass, doused the sugar in no fewer than 20 dashes of Angostura bitters, added crushed ice, then topped it all off with a healthy, unmeasured slug of Jim Beam.
If supremely botched cocktail creations hadn’t been the norm during my 13 years in the Italian capital, I would have found this all very upsetting. But it’s only very recently that Rome is home to anything resembling a serious cocktail scene.
To be fair, though, a properly made cocktail in Rome wasn’t impossible to find in the past—it just wasn’t accessible to all. Historically, decent cocktails were mainly confined to hotels’ gilded bars or exclusive terraces. A steady stream of tourists kept up the demand for mixed drinks, but the cost of drinking cocktails in these swanky settings—€15 or more wasn’t uncommon—priced them out of reasonable consumption patterns in frugal Rome. The average non-hotel bar didn’t exist to prepare cocktails at all, but rather offered a variety of beverages like coffee, juice, tea, beer, wine and soda.
Cocktails were an afterthought.
The recent genesis of the cocktail-centric Roman bar is often summed up by a tidy foundation legend: The Roman craft cocktail movement began when The Jerry Thomas Project opened in 2009 on a dark and narrow Renaissance-era street in the historical center. The bar, a single endearingly cluttered and smoke-filled room, pays homage to pre-Prohibition cocktails while ironically embracing an anachronistic speakeasy format. A password is required for admission, and, once inside, patrons choose from a constantly developing and thoroughly researched list, which celebrates American and Italian drinking customs of the early 20th century and offers original creations alongside the classics. When the bar opened, the emphasis was on American cocktails, but the menu has evolved over the years to acknowledge local flavors and spirits in an effort to define what Italian cocktails mean in the modern era.
The best of Rome’s cocktail bars aren’t just serving cocktails for the sake of being novel or to mimic American culture, but to genuinely embrace the spirits of Italy and the flavors of the past.
While The Jerry Thomas Project offered something new for Rome when it opened, it didn’t spring up spontaneously; it was part of a larger movement away from traditional drinking culture in which alcohol was consumed in a handful of places: the home, a wine bar, the discoteca or a restaurant. Over the past decade, limited disposable income imposed by the financial crisis has caused a change in where and what people drink across the city; new formats have been born to offer venues for socializing on a budget, and globalization has paved the way for diverse drinking and dining offerings once foreign to this ancient city. Rome is now home to craft beer pubs, independent wine bars, poly-functional café-bistros and cocktail bars—all of them the result of the city’s current economic reality and shifting culture.
What’s more, the best of Rome’s cocktail bars aren’t just serving cocktails for the sake of being novel or to mimic American culture, but to genuinely embrace the spirits of Italy and the flavors of the past. Taking historical liquors and drinks of the 1920s and ‘30s as inspiration, cocktails in Rome are finally reflecting the city’s flavors.
At The Jerry Thomas Project, founder Leonardo Leuci recently partnered with Piedmont’s Distilleria Quaglia to revive forgotten liquors and create a line of vermouths inspired by old recipes. While Rome may seem far from vermouth’s historical birthplace in northern Italy, the city’s connection to Piedmont goes back to 1870 when King Victor Emmanuel II conquered Rome, placing his Piedmontese family line in power for the decades that followed. It’s not a stretch to imagine the king and his family sipping similar vermouths in their Roman palaces.
At the bar, Distilleria Quaglia’s Vermouth del Professore is served on ice with bitters as an aperitif and also makes its way into the bar’s signature Negroni del Professore, the moscato-based, chamomile-infused vermouth amplifying the floral notes of the gin.
At 47 Barrato, a cavernous L-shaped bar that opened in 2015 in a former cinema club, founder Emanuele Broccatelli is even more direct when referencing local flavors. In his Calindri, which is named for the late Italian film actor and Cynar spokesperson, Ernesto Calindri, he mixes the bitter artichoke liqueur with a touch of lesser calamint liqueur, lemon juice and tonic for a drink that celebrates Rome’s famous thistle. While in his Caput Mundi (“capital of the world” in Latin, and Rome’s nickname), he incorporates absinthe and Maraschino with anisette, a common liqueur in central Italy and one whose flavor was historically embraced by Romans in their drinks and desserts, but has since fallen out of fashion.
Similarly, at Co.So. Cocktail & Social in Pigneto—Rome’s hipster capital—Massimo D’Addezio uses the Roman table as inspiration for his Carbonara Sour, which is based on guanciale-washed vodka and garnished with black pepper. This, and other tongue-in-cheek drinks titles on the menu, are aimed at starting a conversation with patrons, many of whom don’t have extensive experience with cocktails.
D’Addezio’s attention to the drinker’s experience and hospitality were cultivated during years in the Stravinskij Bar at the five-star luxury Hotel de Russie in central Rome. Though Co.So. is thoroughly laid-back, brightly lit and playfully decorated—the opposite of the Stravinskij—D’Addezio’s other project, Chorus, is unabashedly baroque. Occupying a Fascist-era building near Piazza San Pietro, Chorus could easily have hosted a scene cut from The Great Beauty, its marble walls and high ceilings playing host to aging aristocrats and their paramours, perfectly tanned and coiffed middle-aged couples and the stray playboy.
He holds court behind the bar there, mixing and shaking drinks for a clientele who would likely never make the trip to Co.So., instead preferring the upscale opulence of Rome’s Prati district. But D’Addezio’s ability to move effortlessly through both worlds, and the very fact that there are such diverse cocktail drinkers at all, signals precisely how cocktails have embedded themselves in Rome’s new drinking landscape. On a recent Thursday night, I sat down at the bar and ordered D’Addezio’s Una Vita da Signori (“A Life of Luxury”), which does double duty as an aperitif and an herbaceous after-dinner drink. A combination of two types of amaro, Martini Gran Lusso and mezcal—ingredients both native and borrowed—it’s the kind of drink that makes it easy to forget all those slapdash Old-Fashioneds of yore.