I was around twenty years old and had already been part of the restaurant business for a few years in my home town of Lodi, both as a waiter and assistant pizza chef. Several friends of mine were aspiring bartenders and used to tell me great stories about their lives. I couldn’t help but be attracted by a career in bartending with direct contact with customers, late-night shenanigans, and always being the center of attention.
My curiosity about bartending pushed me to take some professional barman courses but after I finished them, I had to make a real decision. I thought back to some wise advice from the most important mentor in my career, Matteo Schiavone, one of the most famous pizza chefs in the USA. He told me “If you really wanna do this job, do it right, or don’t do it all.” From these encouraging words, I tried to learn as much as I could about the craft and at the same time, improve my bar skills and technique.
I worked in simple bars in my home town with a focus on the aperitivo, still a big trend in Northern Italy. Even though most drinks I made were the typical commercial ones like Negroni, Sbagliato, Spritz and Mojito, I experimented as much as possible to offer more modern cocktails with the best possible ingredients. I also wanted present the drinks in a beautiful way to my customers, who were used to drinks served in Ikea glasses with sad ice cubes and that ugly black plastic straw. I sought the best possible glassware and decorations, sometimes even paying out of my own pocket. But it was worth the investment, as it helped me build a strong reputation.
The most important bar I worked it was Bar Lodi, opened in 1998 in the central square of Lodi’s Cathedral. It was designed by Fabio Novembre and is covered with beautiful Bisazza mosaic tiles, with the bar appearing in several interior design magazines and books. Even after visiting much of the world, I would still rank Bar Lodi as one of the most beautiful bars I’ve seen. I spent three years at Bar Lodi, not only learning the cocktail craft, but also all aspects of running a bar/restaurants such as food, coffee, hospitality and management, helping me a build a solid foundation for the next steps in my career.
Cocktail competitions and the move to the cocktail mecca
I wanted to truly dedicate myself as I pursued this new career path, but there’s only so much one can learn from books. I felt like I also need to compare myself with the best, so I decided to start compete in international bartending competitions, even if there were very few of them back in the day. Although bartending competitions are not completely essential, they were very useful for me, giving me a chance to learn from my peers, motivating me to travel more.
My experience with cocktail competitions even convinced me to move to the UK in 2002. My choice of moving to London was crucial for my career, as the market there was and still is seeing incredible growth. The first bar I worked at was Sacred And Profane in New Bond Street. Then I started working for the famous Italian hotel chain Hotel Baglioni on Kensington High Street, where I was mentored by Matteo Lussana. He taught me the ins and outs of working in a hotel bar and constantly pushed me to come up with new recipes, allowing me to explore my creative side and become a well-rounded bartender. I also had the chance to work with a talented young bartender, who in the future would become one of the greats in the industry, Mr. Giuseppe Gallo.
Obviously without the effort, you won’t get anywhere in life. Today, after more than twenty years in the industry, I take great pride in knowing it inside out, and consider myself very fortunate that I can travel around the world and share my experiences with others who have the same passion about bartending as I do.
Low ABV cockails at Rotonda
For the past five years, I’ve been bar manager of Rotonda Bistro in Milano. Because of convoluted Italian regulations, the historical building where Rotonda bistro is located is restricted to serving drinks made with bottles having less than 21% ABV. I estimate that this cut the number of bottles I was used to working with by a factor of ten! Honestly, I thought of giving up when faced with this challenge, but I pushed myself to research low alcohol spirits, liqueurs and bitters to come up with innovative cocktails to serve to my guests, transforming Rotonda’s limitation into something unique. I now tour the world to top cocktail bars and bar shows doing master classes and guest shifts presenting my low ABV mixology. I recently published a book called Low Alcohol Cocktails: New Frontiers in Mixology. After only a few months from the publication, this book has been presented in several seminars around the world, winning a Gourmand International Awards recently as the best Italian book in the Non Alcoholic & Other Drinks category
Wise words from a regular customer
I’ve been lucky to have met many interesting people while working as a bartender. Perhaps my favorite customer over the years was a well-traveled and elegant gentleman who was a regular when I worked at Bar Lodi in 2001. Having been born into a well to do family, he was able to build his business and pursue his hobby of traveling the world. In front of a nice Daiquiri, he loved telling me about his exotic voyages around the world. At the time, I was just a simple boy that had just arrived from a small town on the outskirts of Milano, with few life experiences compared to the distinguished gentleman. Perhaps because of this, or maybe because of his amazing narrative ability, I would spend entire evenings listening attentively to his anecdotes during service.
I recall he spoke about culture, faraway lands and daily life, reminding me always that both life and career come together when one reaches their forties. Having just turned forty years old, both my personal and professional life are finally on track, and the future looks even brighter. Reminiscing about the gentleman who drank Daiquiris, I can’t help but think that he knew a thing or two about life.
My embarrassing moments serving celebrities in London
While working at 2003 at Hotel Baglioni in London, I had several funny encounters with celebrities, which all led to me looking like a fool. Once, the Spice Girl Geri Halliwell visited me five times in a month. On a good day, I’m not even able to recognize myself in the mirror. Of course, each and every time Geri Halliwell came to the bar, I couldn’t remember who she was, relying on my colleagues to remind me that the familiar looking habitué was a world famous pop star.
It may come to a surprise to you given that I’m Italian, but I’ve never been interested in sports, which led to an awkward exchange at the bar. After having served a well-built man, I asked him which table I should charge his nonalcoholic drink to. He was dumbfounded that I didn’t know who he was, and he asked me if I watched football. I apologized, asking him if he was Maradona, Pelè or Platini. He laughed at my ignorance, telling me that he played for AC Milan. To this day, I still have no idea who he is!
In another celebrity mixup, I had just arrived behind the elegant bar at Baglioni and was still getting my bar tools in order. A beautiful woman approached me and with a lovely soft voice asked me to bring her some pizza. I was confused by her request, and politely informed her that our restaurant doesn’t make pizza. The lady didn’t give up, again asking for a pizza. I explained for a second time that our hotel restaurant-bar doesn’t offer pizza, trying to keep my cool in front of the increasingly-pushy customer. She wasn’t discouraged – for a third time, she requested her pizza. Then it clicked. She was referring to the vol-au-vent focaccia that that the kitchen had prepared as a cocktail side the previous night. With my excitement at unraveling the mystery, I exclaimed: “Ahhh…fuck!!! The Vol-au-Vent! I’ll go check in the kitchen if they have any more.”
Slightly rattled, she turned away and sat down at her table. It was in that moment that I noticed that the bar lady and waiter were both staring at me. I’ll never forget the look of terror in their eyes, which prompted me to recall that an important Hollywood actress was staying with us at the hotel that week. Totally embarrassed, I went up to Penelope Cruz and apologized, asking her if I could offer her a drink. She fired back with a request even more odd than the first one. With a big smile, she hollered “A Bull shot!” I had absolutely no clue what it was, but I was miraculously able to track down the recipe from an old recipe notebook from when I was enrolled in an AIBIS bartender course. Luckily we had all the ingredients and Penelope thoroughly enjoyed her beverage. I later found out that while chatting with my colleague on a return visit, she brought up the fucking vol-au-vent incident, laughing about the misunderstanding that made me look like a complete idiot.
My favorite bar experience: Nottingham Forest
The first time I entered Nottingham Forest, I was 22 years old. I had heard the rumors of a magical cocktail bar where one could try original and futuristic cocktails served in peculiar drinking receptacles, making for a completely unique experience. It was all true.
That night, sitting at the bar which has since entered the World’s 50 Best list, I understood that the world of mixology was more than just Martini glasses, olives and cherries. Sitting in front of the legendary Dario Comini, head bartender at Nottingham Forest, I also realized the importance of providing the customer with a new and exciting cocktail bar experience. Dario’s lavish cocktails and original presentations continue to inspire me even now as bar manager at La Rotonda Bistrot in Milano, only a ten minute walk from Notthingham Forest.
The future of bartending
In the next few years, I foresee a rapid growth in our industry, aided by TV, print and internet media dedicating more attention to bartenders and mixology, just as they have in previous years with chefs and cooking.
I believe that cocktail ingredients will become better known to the general public, with bartenders striving to better educate their customers. Of course the Internet and books are helpful for learning more about cocktails, but I think it’s really up to us bartenders to educate our customers. An enlightened imbiber will not only gain more satisfaction from drinking, but will surely contribute to the growth of the bartending industry.
My life outside the bar
I’ve emphasized how important it is to put maximum effort into your job to grow your career. But work isn’t everything in life. As I mentioned I’m not a big fan of sports like many Italians. Instead I spend as much of my free time with my dear wife Elena our cat Oscar. Having a great career is worthless unless you lead a happy and stress-free life.
My signature – the French Mule
Three years ago, I created a twist of the famous Moscow Mule using St Germain instead of vodka, naming the drink French Mule. This is the most popular drink in Rotonda Bistrot and thanks to its enticing presentation in a glass jar, the French Mule attracts the attention of the guests, who regularly order it each time they return to the bar.
20 mL Lime
50 mL Elderflower liqueur
Top of ginger beer
Glass: Bormioli Vase
Garnish: Ginger and Dehydrated Lime