It feels safe to say that Rome isn’t thought of as a cocktail city. And that’s fine—leave that distinction to the likes of New York and London and enjoy the millennia-old ruins, masterpieces of Western art, and extra-hearty pasta the Eternal City has to offer.
But, naturally, all those activities are best followed up with a drink. So, when I planned a trip to Rome this past December, I knew I’d want to venture beyond its excellent wine bars and see what the local cocktail scene had to offer.
As it turned out, that scene offered a lot to like. From funky, Italian-specific ingredients to boundary-pushing cocktails and concepts, Rome does just fine.
The Jerry Thomas Project
At the top of my list was The Jerry Thomas Project. The bar, which took the 52nd ranking on the 2018 World’s Best 50 Bars List (it actually goes to 100), is easily the most written-about and photographed watering hole in the city.
Some of that fame may be attributed to its convoluted entry system: even if you’ve made a reservation (recommended, considering its small size, though their phone is rarely answered) you must provide a password to enter. That password will only be emailed to you after correctly answering a multiple-choice quiz on its website. That multiple-choice quiz is only revealed if you click a certain icon on the upper right corner of the website…
The Jerry Thomas Project was founded in 2010, at the peak of the neo-speakeasy trend. The password-related wild goose chase may have felt novel and exciting at that earlier date, but it may cause 2019 imbibers to groan.
So, what’s it like once you reach 30 Vicolo Cellini? As you might have guessed, no signage exists. What you will see is a black door with a brass owl knocker. Look closer, and you’ll see a brass plate above it with “Professor Jerry Tomas” written in cursive script. Despite my earlier cynicism, the fantasy of entering Jerry Thomas’s home brought a smile to my face.
After buzzing and giving the password, a short flight of stairs reveals the bar, whose aesthetic is Prohibition New York as imagined by the Italians. The lighting is dim, the air is smoky, and chesterfield couches provide the only seating aside from its tiny bar and a handful of tiny tables with tiny chairs. Wall-mounted cabinets hold vintage cocktail shakers, books, and rare spirits. I spotted bottles of Glenlivet 21, Elijah Craig 23, and Michter’s 20 by our table. An old-timey jazz soundtrack is present everywhere save the vintage pinup-papered bathroom, where it’s replaced by Italian opera. The aesthetics of the Jerry Thomas project are undeniably precious. They’re also quite fun.
But before drinks can be ordered, you’ll have to pay to join. The Jerry Thomas Project is a membership bar, and a five-Euro fee covers you for the next six months. This fee, along with the 12-15 euro price of each cocktail, make it one of the more expensive drinking venues in the city. Only cash is accepted, but fortunately an ATM is located just a few blocks away.
Potential sticker shock may be offset by the lengthy menu’s gorgeous production values. Many of its pages feature beautiful, Belle Epoque-style illustrations that depict the life of Jerry Thomas and scenes from the New York of his time. From among its many sections, which include an “Absinthe Fountain” page and a selection of Martinis as they would have been made at various points in history, I selected the house-original Velvet Not Velvet and my companion asked for an Aged Daiquiri.
The Velvet Not Velvet, described on the menu as “Strong-Sweet” (all drinks had such two-word descriptions) arrived in the tiniest and most precious coupe glass I’ve ever seen. That glass, and the general surroundings, gave me the feeling of drinking in a dollhouse.
This cocktail, made with banana-infused arrack, Cynar 70, vanilla syrup, cardamom bitters, nocino, and a coffee infusion, tasted like a Pina Colada would after taking a drag on a cigarette. It was as delicious as it was weird. The Aged Daiquiri—as was the case with many of the drinks—benefited from house-made ingredients, in this case powerfully aromatic toasted oak bitters.
The next round brought us a Martinez and a Gin and Pine. The former was well balanced with just the right amount of bitter, and benefited from the inclusion of absinthe and vanilla syrup. The latter featured gin and a balsamic liqueur that had been made expressly for the bar, lending the crisp drink a sweet, malty character.
Balsamic also appeared in my last drink, the highly bitter Enhanced Awareness, in the form of a balsamic vinegar syrup. For all the inspiration drawn from the speakeasies and neo-speakeasies of New York City, I appreciated the prominence of such an Italian ingredient to remind me of where I really was.
One drink I did not order was its signature Blue Blazer. No matter its connection to the actual Jerry Thomas, I was not willing to spend 30 euros on a single drink or see Johnny Walker Blue mixed into a cocktail. Fortunately another patron was, and the bartender’s show-stopping preparation—which involved pouring electric-blue flaming liquid between two silver mugs—commanded the attention of the entire room.
It was bartending as spectacle, the sort of thing some may roll their eyes at but would surely crane their necks to see.
Caffè Propaganda is tucked away just five minute’s walking distance from the Colosseum, but couldn’t feel further away from the tourist bric-a-brac that surrounds much of the Roman Forum area. Its black-and-white color palette and lo-fi soundtrack was almost as soothing as their house Spritz, which was by far the most creative pre-dinner dram I experienced in the city.
It was made by reducing a variety of aperitifs, than combining the reduction with not-yet-fully fermented organic wine in a bottle. The wine would finish its fermentation in the bottle, and the mixture would be served with soda. The end result was a layered, complex drink that might forever make Aperol Spritzes feel like a bit of a letdown.
Freni e Frizioni
The last stop on my trail was Freni e Frizioni, located in the boho Trastevere neighborhood. Its name is Italian for “brakes and transmission,” a nod to the space’s former life as an auto garage.
Save for the excellent staff uniforms, which were retro-style varsity jackets adorned with a crossed wrench and hammer, little of that past remains. Its chandelier-strewn interior hosted a long bar without seating. Orders were placed at a cash register and then passed along to a bartender, who would make cocktails named after characters from European comics and presented via an elaborately illustrated menu that resembled newspaper funny pages.
To call the drinks original would be an understatement. I enjoyed a Coco Bill made with Jack Daniel’s Rye, Don Julio Tequila, corn-flake infused chamomile syrup, licorice bitters, and an absinthe mist. On a more ordinary note, their house Negroni—made with Carpano Antica—was the best I had in Rome.
Those drinks could be enjoyed on indoor or outdoor tables—or increasingly, as the night wore on—any spot along the low stone wall that surrounded a small plaza outside.
Freni e Frizioni was packed when I visited. It was a Saturday night, but the crowd may also have been drawn by its aperitivi spread, which was the most elaborate I’d ever encountered. From entire pans of pasta, bean salad, and couscous to heaping bowls of hummus, it became clear that an eight Euro drink at Freni e Frizoni could be stretched into an entire meal ticket.
We had dinner plans elsewhere, so the magnificent spread went untouched on my part. Which is just as fine, as the drinks themselves proved more than enough reason to visit.