Behind The Bar ~ Bonnie Vee

After working in restaurants from age 16 and becoming involved in theatre at age 20, Bonnie Vee bartender Nino Cirabisi got an unexpected understudy opportunity. When the bartender at his restaurant of employment collapsed on his walk in, the owner put Cirabisi — who was waiting tables at the time — behind the stick. “They were the days of cosmos, Rose’s Lime Juice, and sour mix from a gun,” he says. “I knew nothing.” But that ignorance paved way to one of Cirabisi’s greatest bartending tools: his social know-how. “This was a place that was full of characters, punch lines, and stories, and I just made myself available to it,” he recalls. From there, the Brooklyn-born bartender headed to Los Angeles, where he continued his joint pursuit of acting and managing bars, before returning a few years later to New York’s service industry. Back home, he began mixing up Italian-inspired drams at the understated but fun flowing Brooklyn Social while also working with a handful of the city’s headlining bartenders, from Kenneth McCoy to Frank Cisneros. And regardless of how far he’s come in technique and approach, Cirabisi still leans heavily on the skills that matter most. “I make drinks, but I also make people laugh, I introduce people, I flirt, I debate, I gently discourage when need be, bounce when I must and hold court, knowing that it’s about them, not me.” Here, Cirabisi shares why respect trumps revenge, the drink he’s eager to fix, and why the bar acts as this wild city’s living room.

BoozeMenus: How would you describe your approach behind the bar?

Nino Cirabisi: I am on. Whether it's in regards to making a cocktail, interacting with a customer, or foreseeing a situation — just being present enough to understand exactly what is happening all around me as I focus on the execution of service.

BM: Why did you decide to open on the LES?

NC: It was the space more than the neighborhood. Bonnie Vee is a really special place. The garden is like nothing else in Manhattan, and the interior is warm and intimate. I like that we're tucked away on a side street. I've known that block since I was going to the original 205 Club in 1992 and 1993. I hadn't spent much time in Manhattan in the last few years, but when I saw the space, I knew it was right.

BM: What's one of your most memorable nights behind the bar, and why?

NC: I don't know that I can answer that. I've spent so many nights in bars. All of my friends — the people I consider my family — have spent most of their adult lives in bars. It'd be like picking a favorite moment in my life. This isn't just me. More than any other city dwellers, I think New Yorkers treat their bar as an extension of their home. I've celebrated births, mourned deaths, made friends, lost friends, laughed, cried, and everything in between in a bar. Put it this way — I have a really nice apartment I've been in for over a decade in Fort Greene, complete with living room, full dining room, extra bathrooms and bedrooms — no one comes over. We meet at bars. It's not like that in other cities.

BM: Where are you drinking on a night off?

NC: I check in at other bars my friends own or work at. You'll probably find me at Whiskey Annex or Grand National in WIlliamsburg. I go to visit the owner, George Ruotolo. We worked together in 1996, and he's been my best friend since. I might be at Ward III in Tribeca catching up with Kenny McCoy another dear friend. If I'm at home in Fort Greene, I'm usually at Roman's, Andrew Tarlow's restaurant. Now, those are three uniquely different establishments — beer and a shot sports bar, serious cocktail joint and ingredient-driven restaurant — but what they all have in common is how they treat people. Not just me, but everyone who walk through their doors.

BM: How do you put your twist on a drink on the spot?

NC: I'll get some idea of what a person is looking for by referencing another drink they enjoy or some buzz words on flavor profile, technique or a spirit. From there, it's a matter of balance. Cocktails are more similar to cooking than baking — there's room there if you know what you're doing. Though to be honest, it's not all that similar to either of them; I have too much respect for my chef and cook friends to ever sincerely compare the two.

BM: Who is your ideal patron?

NC: I'd love to have a bar full of all like-minded, curious, interesting people. It's not the reality, though. I haven't dealt with anything that's really set me off in a long time. Yes, the city has changed, it's a bit more entitled, a lot more college, and way more unaware, but you learn to deal with people. It's part of the job description. I turn people around. If you have to go, you have to go, but until you're 86'd, you're mine to deal with — and I'd rather win you over, share some insight and get you to behave accordingly and return, than belittle you or vent at your expense. It's counter to my approach and, ultimately, my bank account. I'll take your money, and you'll thank me for doing so.

BM: What is your favorite time during a shift?

NC: When I'm just about to get in the weeds. It's slammed. I touch everything once so I know that it's where it should be. Then I start swimming.

BM: What music is playing while you're working?

NC: Depends on the time and the mood of the crowd. Bonnie Vee is a nod to the WWII era, so early on there might be some big band stuff. I like to dance, so later it could turn to some Afrobeat, Latin, funk and R&B. If it’s just what makes me want to work, I'm listening to Golden Era hip hop, reggae, and dancehall.

BM: Where do you find inspiration?

NC: It comes from everywhere. I'm intrigued by cultures, lifestyles and traditions — food, objects, materials, images.

BM: What's the most annoying cocktail to fix? Most enjoyable?

NC:M ost annoying would be the cocktail "vodka, not too sweet.” Most enjoyable is really anything I'm making for someone that appreciates it and is looking forward to it. Maybe I don't have a favorite drink so much as a favorite drinker. I've got some patrons who are excited when they get to have a drink I make them, and it makes me feel just as good.

BM: What do you love most about what you do everyday?

NC: As an owner I'm not just responsible for myself. I'm responsible for my partners and employees. I enjoy that challenge and responsibility. I think I'm pretty good at a few things and I've learned an awful lot. I like sharing that.

By Nicole Schnitzler

(Photos Courtesy of Bonnie Vee)