[Now closed] Chicago’s Otto Mezzo is a rare newcomer to the city’s drink scene: a bar with Art Deco sensibilities, a Fellini fetish and drinks that can transport you to another time, another texture. Opened last May by Rockit Ranch group (The Duck Inn, Bottlefork), the bar takes its name from Fellini’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece 81⁄2 and features a predominantly Italian menu replete with obscure grappa and amari, and Italian beer and wines curated by partner and barman Brandon Phillips’ brother, sommelier Michael Taylor, and irresistible bites like arancini, Bolognese pasta and burrata-filled, ’nduja-wrapped olives.
We took a peek behind the gloss and glamour of Otto Mezzo to find out what makes it one of the most exciting new bars in the city.
All in the Family
Phillips (who put The Duck Inn’s drink menu on the map) is the mastermind behind the beverage program but also spearheaded the film set feel and found some of the vintage furniture pieces himself.
“My grandmother immigrated to the United States from Belluno, Italy, in 1946,” he says. “Many of the drinks on our cocktail menu pay tribute to her, and the style of the bar is rooted in post-war Italian influence. Otto Mezzo is not defined by a style of spirit but rather by the entire country of Italy, through an Art Deco lens.”
The Fellini Influence
“My business partners, Brad Young and Kevin Hickey, are big film buffs,” says Phillips. “When we began conceptualizing our Italian cocktail bar, meetings would often end discussing Italian directors: Antonioni while sipping grappa, De Sica over amaro, Visconti with vermouth. But we always came back to Fellini’s 81⁄2. Every detail in Otto Mezzo, from the glassware to the candlelight, was inspired by one phrase from the film: Asa nisi masa.
Though the phrase is technically nonsensical, it’s thought to be pig Latin for anima, which is not only the Italian word for “soul” but also Carl Jung’s term for the female aspect of the personality in men. When it came time to choose a name, Otto Mezzo seemed the obvious choice. Everything here is delicate and lovely. As a woman who loved lambrusco and a laugh, my nonna would have adored this place!”
It won’t take a purist long to notice that there’s not a single beer or wine, not to mention 95 percent of spirits, that doesn’t come from Italy. If you’re a drinker who alway orders the same thing, you’re going to need to try something new. The staff can help you with recommendations. Phillips clarifies his vision: “I find that many great bar concepts have been watered down or homogenized to provide something for everyone, even if it doesn’t fit the theme. We strive to put forward a fully realized concept and make very few concessions.”
Trust Your Server
To get the most of your experience at Otto Mezzo, it’s important to dialogue with the bartenders. “The cocktail menu offers a phenomenal Negroni,” says Phillips. “But I’d urge you to delve deeper and put some trust in your server. You could spend the entire night Googling cochineal (a dye that comes from pulverized bugs), Vecchia Romagna Etichetta Nera (brandy from Emilia-Romagna), Bepi Tosolini Fragola (strawberry liqueur) and other words that appear on the menu.”
“The Biscotti Sour is a good place to start. Crafted with biscotti-flavored liqueur, grappa and egg white, this creamy, sweet concoction is as satisfying as cookies straight from your grandmother’s oven. On the other end of the spectrum is the Dolomite Don’t Need No Posse, a blend of bourbon, grape-distillate-based amaro, alpine-style amaro, pine liqueur and orange-saffron bitters.”
Let the Spirits Move You
The drink list changes constantly as Phillips sources rare bottles. A couple he’s excited about lately? “Famiglia Orro Crannatza. An oxidative vernaccia wine from the island of Sardinia, Crannatza is reminiscent of oloroso sherry, but a hint of dried fruit and honeysuckle makes it incredibly distinct.”
There are also vintage spirits like Ramazzotti Inferno Grappa Nera. “Bottled in 1947, this is the oldest of our vintage grappa offerings,” says Phillips. It drinks like an aged grappa but with intense herbal overtones, finishing with a rich, almost PX-sherry-like raisin note. Seventy years old at the time of its uncorking, it wears its age well and has a hundred stories to tell.”
Whether you love Italy, Italian drink/food/film, dreamy spaces that invite conversation, or something different, Otto Mezzo fits the bill. As Phillips says, “After a night of drinking and noshing at Otto Mezzo, you’ll practically forget you’re in Chicago.”