Behind the Bar Stick People

You Ready for the Best Kind of Italian Bar Hospitality?

Massimo Stronati Image: Risada Panavija

Have you ever been to one of those impeccable Italian cocktail bars that marries Japanese precision with the romance of Italy? These aren’t speakeasies or stuffy spirit dens but unpretentious examples of Italian hospitality. A prime example: the enchanting Palazzo delle Misture in the Italian alpine town, and home of grappa, Bassano del Grappa, where absinthe cabinets and cocktails flash-chilled in bottles via liquid nitrogen are served in a space filled with rare spirits, whimsical lamps and a generous sense of welcome.

The Bay Area has been seeing a quiet wave of just such bars led by two extremely talented barmen from Italy. In San Francisco, Jacopo Rosito hails from Florence and has helmed the bar at 54 Mint, a Roman Italian restaurant in San Francisco’s Mint Plaza, since it took on it liquor license in 2015. Massimo Stronati came to the US from Milan at the beginning of this year to run the bar at Vina Enoteca, which opened at the end of 2016 in Palo Alto’s historic Stanford Barn, in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Jacopo Rosito. Elisa Parrino

The bars promote the full breadth of Italian spirits—not just grappa but Italian brandies, gins, vodkas and liqueurs. Much of their staff comes from the old country, ensuring both an Italian ethos and kitchens that serve real-deal pasta, pizza and other regional specialties. And the cocktails run the gamut, from tried-and-true classics to molecular-leaning drinks, proving that no one does it quite like the Italians.

Jacopo Rosito at 54 Mint

Rosito has been crafting culinary cocktails with Italian ingredients from San Marzano tomatoes to Calabrian chiles (including the stunning Zia Maria we told you about last year). With his latest menu, he pays homage to the seven hills of Rome with an artful menu map outlining the Eternal City and cocktails named after each hill.

54 Mint’s Black Sand. Virginia Miller

He uses ingredients like squid ink and gold flakes (in the Black Sand: gin, squid ink, coconut ash, Disaronno liqueur, Green Chartreuse, cream, egg white and soda) or beets and maple syrup (in the Esquilino: beet-infused vodka, fresh lime juice, Cointreau, maple syrup and Disaronno foam). He also collects artful glassware from Japan to Mexico and employs scene-stealing techniques, like a liquid nitrogen Espresso Martini poured from an Italian moka pot.

Forward-thinking and elegant, Jacopo embodies the Italian ethos in San Francisco, but first, beyond all the pleasure to the palate and the eye, it’s the hospitality. “Hospitality for me means providing an experience that exceeds our customers’ expectations,” he says. “Anyone can provide amazing service, but at the end of the day, it’s all about how you make people feel.”

Massimo Stronati. Risada Panavija

Rosito also places crucial importance on the team: “Passion, dedication and teamwork, together with communication and respect, are the keys,” he says. “What brings it all together is a good dose of discipline, behind the bar as well as in life. I want my team to feel completely comfortable and happy anytime they come to work.”

Massimo Stronati at Vina Enoteca

Pulling from his extensive experience running bars in Milan (such as The Doping Club, Cinc and Morgante Cocktail & Soul), Stronati eased the Palo Alto bar into his refined style when he came on board in February with drinks like the the delightful Oscarino, a Negroni twist showcasing Campari infused with artichoke and sporting a lemon peel garnish stamped with edible ink that reads “Italians do it bitter.”

Vina Enoteca’s Farm Tai. Virginia Miller

He’s now rolling out a full-fledged menu playing with infusions like popcorn in bourbon or culinary drinks (can you see a trend here? Italian dishes and ingredients meet cocktails) like Maria a’la bruschetta: vodka infused with arugula, lemongrass and capers; mushrooms; tomato water and chile syrup, with a dried tomato and Parmigiano Reggiano ice cube.

In true Italian fashion, Massimo places as much value on hospitality as he does in his thoughtful, drinkable cocktails: “Hospitality is a state of mind,” he says. “Cocktails are only a part of the magic. My vision behind the bar comes from mixing my Italian roots with California products and way of life. Less is better—not overly complex drinks, just our interpretation from farm to bar, using only the best ingredients.”