Zia Maria cocktail: burrata foam and San Marzano tomato juice with Tuscan vodka!
I’m transported straight back to Italy. But it’s not the housemade pasta, classic Negronis or the hanging prosciutto. This is all transporting, certainly, but I can find this in numerous Italian havens in San Francisco. With Japan a close second, Italy is my favorite country, a place I’ve traveled to multiple times in numerous regions. I crave and long for dear Italia and there are many Bay Area restaurants that do the cuisine right, even if they don’t always capture the spirit of place, something difficult to do outside a given country or city.
Polpette (pork & beef meatballs) with a perfect Negroni
At 54 Mint, open in SF since 2009, it’s the warm, Italian welcome from bar manager Jacopo Rosito and team that first feels immediately like Italia. I chatted with one bartender from Milan, and Rosito himself hails from the fair Firenze (Florence), which in part creates the authentic hospitality. And their about-to-launch new cocktail menu holds some unusual delights.
54 Mint has only offered a full bar (outside of wine and beer) since about one year ago. You’ll find tequila, gin and whiskey on offer and featured in cocktails, but, naturally, there is also amaro (Italian herbal liqueurs). I know: this spirits category and its often bitter taste profile has long been a darling of SF (the first US city to outsell the world in Fernet consumption over a decade ago) and is now popular in cities around the country.
RARE ITALIAN SPIRITS
But I was surprised to find a few rare amari, grappa, brandies and other Italian spirits one hardly sees outside of Italy. Call it the direct, inside connection the staff have to “the motherland” but you’ll find rarely-seen Italian spirits here before you see them anywhere else (and believe me, I’m looking).
Capovilla spirits, examples of rare Italian spirits at 54 Mint
Case in point: Mancino Vermouth Chinato, a red Barbera D’Asti DOCG wine with wuinine bark. It’s sweet, lush, darkly spiced with a welcome hint of funkiness and character on the nose. They also offer the bitter-sweet rarity of Rossi d’ Angera Spitz Genziana from Lake Maggiore.
Count me smitten with all the spirits they pour from cult Italian distillery, Capovilla, whose distiller, Vittorio Gianni Capovilla, has won numerous distilling awards and is beloved by Italian bartenders (rightly so: his story from racecar mechanic to distiller is fascinating). His balanced grappa is a beautiful bottling in that brandy category (more on my visit to the birthplace of grappa, Bassano del Grappa, here), his beer (beer) distillation recalls German bierschnaps and his Cognac-reminiscent brandy is elegantly drinkable.
BURRATA FOAM & SAN MARZANO TOMATO COCKTAILS
Though they shake up well-balanced cocktails across spirits categories, the unusual, and, of course, the Italian, is where it gets good. The Zia Maria cocktail is an Italian culinary revelation in a glass: no less than San Marzano tomatoes are pressed with Calabrian chilies and chile oil, Maldon sea salt, black pepper and lime, mixed with spelt grain-based VKA Vodka from Tuscany. The piece de resistance? Burrata foam. Yes, you heard right. Light, frothy and tart, this burrata is mozzarella and cream decadence from Puglia, Italy, the perfect contrast to the cocktail’s vegetal brightness. They place a creative “straw” of long, dried ziti pasta in the glass and dust the foam with fresh oregano. The result is a cocktail for both Bloody Mary and savory cocktail lovers, one blissfully unlike any other I’ve had before.
Another cocktail beauty, The Wild, combines Rutte Gin, Cocchi Americano vermouth, fresh sage and the aforementioned Rossi d’ Angera Spitz Genziana. The drink is herbaceous and garden-fresh with a whisper of dry and bitter. It goes down seamlessly. In addition, the bar staff master the long pour I see most often in Europe and Japan, they use impeccable ice and cut citrus garnishes into artful designs.
For us Italians and would-be Italians, this is a pocket of (drinkable) Italian graciousness on Mint Plaza.
The Wild cocktail featuring Spitz