Rome’s best cocktail bars and the bartenders behind them
Something is definitely happening here in Italy on the bar front – especially in Rome. While it’s nearly impossible to include ALL of the amazing establishments you can find in this city, here is the top-level, “best-of-the-best” by category and some of the people behind it:
High-volume Street Cocktail Bar: FRENI E FRIZIONI
Via Del Politeama, 4 (Trastevere)
Must-try cocktail: Back to the Pisco
Named after a former mechanic shop, Freni e Frizioni (“brakes and clutches”) just celebrated its 14th year in July 2019 and is cool as ever. Despite its popularity and always being crazy busy, Freni consistently turns out the most creative, killer cocktails in Rome by the most fun and friendliest staff. Their punk vibe can be seen from the colorful drink menus that change seasonally, their “drink of the week” and even their getup, which are now available for purchase.
Appealing to both locals and tourists alike, Freni has managed to maintain their authenticity and modesty – which can be seen by two of the partners, Cristian Bugiada and Riccardo Rossi, hanging out there regularly.
The best drink right now? I would have to say, “Back to the Pisco”, made by Riccardo himself. Inspired by his visit to Peru and extensive research afterward, this unique cocktail made from Pisco Portón, fake lime, simple syrup, and blue tea infused coconut water, is as beautiful as it is delicious.
Imported Culture Bar – Mexico: LA PUNTA | Expendio de Agave
Via di Santa Cecilia, 8 (Trastevere)
Must-try cocktail: Paloma
La Punta is so much more than Rome’s first Mexican bar – it is quite literally another world. Upon entering this small, colorful space transformed by partners Cristian Bugiada and Roberto Artusio, you will feel like you’ve been transported straight to Mexico. Their mission is quite simply to import Mexico to Italy. They’re even the ones responsible for creating the first-ever Paloma Day on May 22nd in collaboration with the Vesper Bar in Amsterdam.
What started as a passion project created from their deep-rooted love and respect for Mexico (specifically the region of Oaxaca), La Punta has become a beautiful tribute to all things Mexican. From the extensive list of tequila and mezcal to their flavorful menu – La Punta celebrates the food, spirit and culture of Mexico in the most unique and authentic way.
So what to drink at La Punta? Obviously, a Paloma – the classic Mexican cocktail made with tequila and lime juice (originally created in 1955). Only their reincarnation incorporates fresh grapefruit juice and agave syrup.
Speakeasy: THE JERRY THOMAS PROJECT
Vicolo cellini, 30 (Campo de’ Fiori)
Must-try cocktail: Punch Bowl
The first speakeasy in Rome, The Jerry Thomas Project, is without a doubt responsible for putting Rome on the map as a drinking destination. Founded in 2010 by a group of experienced and passionate bartenders (Leonardo Leuci, Tony Parlapiano, Roberto Artusio, and Alessandro Procoli),The Jerry Thomas Project changed the tide here in the world of bartending – luring in cocktail enthusiasts on the international and local level, and inspiring other bars to follow suit.
From their beautiful interiors echoing the Roaring Twenties, to the rules and recipes of The Prohibition Era, ‘Jerry’ was featured on “50 world’s best bars” list for five years in a row. And now all of these years later, it remains the most popular, pure speakeasies in Rome and maybe Italy.
Their fixed menu has been carefully thought out and there are many amazing cocktails to choose from. However, when visiting The Jerry Thomas Project (for the first time or twentieth) you must order their Punch Bowl– to which there is entire section on the menu dedicated to it. Their other concoctions and recipes can be found in their brand-new cocktail book published earlier this year.
Restaurant Bar with An International Appeal: BACCANO
Via Delle Muratte, 23 (Trevi)
Must-try cocktail: Aperol Spritz
Baccano is a Mediterranean Bistro that looks like it could be in Paris but tastes of Rome. A few steps from the Trevi Fountain, the sophisticated interior and extensive Italian menu appeal to locals as well as nearby tourists. But the real draw is the man behind the bar (but not always literally) Mario Farulla. Roman born-and-bred, Mario left Italy to pursue a career in bartending because, like many of his other peers this was once the only opportunity to develop.
After making a name for himself abroad, he has come back to reposition things in his hometown. Now as Manager, Mario has transformed the bar of Baccano into an international stage for bartenders – in and outside of Rome – welcoming guests and some of the top talent from around the world. He is the epitome of hospitality and class, which you will feel almost immediately upon entering.
There is a wide selection of beverages to choose from but the most quintessential would be an Aperol Spritz, made by the entertaining and dashing Alessio Giovannesi. It’s the most universal (and most popular) drink in Italy – and also the perfect segue to dinner.
Via di Monte Testaccio, 30 (Testaccio)
Must-try cocktail: Trikini
Simone Mina, sixth generation of a famous restaurant family here in Rome, is the mastermind behind this tiny establishment. He’s also the only person operating it. His concept was to create an imaginary museum of liquids in this hidden space located on the second floor of Checchino dal 1887, a restaurant that has been around for 130+ years.
Like Simone, this bar is truly genuine and one-of-a-kind. Taking inspiration from his family and the surrounding neighborhood of Testaccio, Ch1887 combines food and cocktail culture, by experimenting with flavors and ingredients that can be found in traditional Roman dishes. The drinks pay homage to his roots and change frequently but the result is always the same – incredibly delicious and unique.
His latest invention – the “Trikini” – a creative twist on the classic Daiquiri, is made with Botran Reserve Blanca, lime, and Simone’s special trikini mix.
Instinct Bar: DRINK KONG
Piazza San Martino ai Monti, 8 (Monti)
Must-try cocktail: Pick according to mood
An Irish-Italian who has traveled around the globe, Patrick Pistolesi, knows double cultures well. Formally of Barnum and Café Propaganda, Drink Kong is Pistolesi’s first solo project that takes the bar scene in Rome to the next level. A street-posh, fusion bar that can be seen aesthetically from the vibrant neon interiors decorated with custom-made, old-fashioned plush couches to the more modern and colorful chairs in the second room in the back. There’s even a secret, private room for select tastings and some retro arcade video games, paying homage to his childhood in the 80’s. The fusion concept continues onto the menu with eclectic and international food offerings that can only be found if you were traveling the world or most NYC streets.
Pistolesi is perhaps one of the coolest guys in the business with a larger than life personality and somewhat tough exterior but on the inside, there is a deep, intuitive soul (much like Kong himself). After many years and success in the business, he has not lost sight of the most important part of the equation – the people coming to the establishment and their relationship with the bar and bartender. This vision is what inspired Drink Kong and is best represented with their unique cocktail concept. The drink menu is designed with you in mind – literally. You’re encouraged to (in relaxed way) pick what color resonates with you and after choosing, you can read the drink recipe as well as the overall “mood” description, reflecting which one you are experiencing at that given moment. Because the strongest way to evoke emotions is through the senses. As for the cocktail – you’ll have to pick for yourself.
Secret Bar: THE BARBER SHOP
Via Iside, 2 (Colosseum)
Must-try cocktail: Il Poeta
Modeled after the speakeasies from the Prohibition, The Barber Shop is somehow different from all the rest. The only signage outside of this secret bar near the Colosseum is a vintage barber shop pole outside their unmarked door.
Both founders and owners Joy Napolitano and Matteo Siena are still behind the bar and joined by head bartender Federico Diddi, Michelangelo Bruno, and Karin Germani. Some of the nicest, down-to-earth people in the industry all taking turns popping out from behind the bar to engage with the customer, as this is the only way to get to know and interact with their clientele. A simple idea but pretty rare these days. Not only making the overall experience more intimate and personal – it somehow makes the cocktail taste that much better.
Despite other speakeasies around the world and some of the first ones that sprouted up in NYC, The Barber Shop combines the exclusive factor synonymous with the term speakeasy with a genuinely friendly touch, hands-on approach and service. Back to basics. Maybe that’s their other secret.
For three consecutive years, they have been one of the 100 Best Bars in Italy, among the Top 10 Cocktail Bars of 2017, The Best Bar Teams in 2018 and as of 2019, The Barber Shop has been listed as one of the Best 500 Bars in the World. Perhaps for all of those reasons listed previously.
Their current drink menu is comprised of two parts: Renaissance Cocktails and the Whiskey book (which was divided between Europe, Asia and the US). However these days, they are currently working on a new menu so stay tuned.
Must drink is the award-winning Il Poeta created by Joy Napolitano, the man himself.
Single-Spirit Focused: IL MARCHESE
Via di Ripetta, 162 (Centro Storico)
Must-try cocktail: Olimpia
Located right near Piazza del Popolo, Il Marchese is the first Amaro bar in Italy – and Europe. Opened early in 2019, the space is beautiful and elegant with cocktails to match.
While you can also find other liquors behind the bar and on the menu, Il Marchese is really a single-spirit focused bar with over 600 different Amaro labels to choose from and an extensive list of drinks featuring that ingredient as the main protagonist. The man behind these unique cocktail creations – mixology great Matteo Zed, formerly of Bastianich’s Del Posto in New York City. There is also a list of 30 amaros that change monthly. So plenty of reasons to expand your palate – Amaro connoisseur or not.
The staff, managed by partners/owners Davide Solari and Lorenzo Renzi, is professional, polite and extremely well-versed in Amaro. Their signature cocktail prepared by top barman Dario D’Agostini is the Olimpia – a delicate balance of sweet and bitter with: Amaro Juith, Lychee, Rosemary, Lemon juice and Champagne.
Members-Only Lounge Bar: THE RACE CLUB
Via Labicana 52 (Colosseum)
Must-try cocktail: V for Vespetta
A throwback to a secret society (carboneria) from the late 1800’s, The Race Club is a members-only lounge housed in a space with many past lives. In the 1950’s the building where it now stands was completely abandoned only to be restructured a century later. During this time and into the 70’s, a recording studio where many Roman singers and songwriters emerged. After that, it became a gathering place for a broader clientele mainly for gambling. Nowadays, the space has been redesigned like an upscale basement hangout, adorned with quirky and thoughtful touches.
Virtually hidden from the street level and despite the bouncer that you will find at the door most nights (as well as the mandatory Membership Card) The Race Club is dark, cozy and extremely inviting bar with many little corners and couches – conducive for lounging around with a great cocktail.
There are 6 soci in total – 3 of whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet personally several times (Matteo, Mattia and Alfonsina) all who have taken great care to make this place what it is now five years later. Must drink is Matteo’s latest concoction – V for Vespetta – a surprising cocktail in both flavor and how it is served. Laphroaig Scotch, lemon, and their secret raspberry mixture.
Gin Lovers Hot Spot: GIN CORNER
Via di Pallacorda, 2 (Centro Storico)
Must-try cocktail: Gold Martini
The Gin Corner, located in the Hotel Adriano is the first bar in Italy dedicated entirely to Gin. It’s not only a great little hotel bar and gin lovers hot spot, it has been proclaimed the “Martini Mecca” by the Martini & Friends Association who meets there regularly.
The tiny space is refreshing and light, like a perfect gin & tonic should be. And with more than 100 gins on the list and veteran bartender Angelo de Valeri (with over 40 years of experience in bartending) at the helm, you are guaranteed the best in service and gin-based cocktail, whichever one you choose.
One of his signature drinks – the Gold Martini is made with Italian olive oil – a simple yet flavorful cocktail that’s also extremely photogenic.
Hidden Bar, After-Hours: CLUB DERRIERE
Vicolo delle Coppelle, 59 (Centro Storico)
Must-try cocktail: Newton
Club Derriere (which appropriately translates to back room) is a hidden bar located in the heart of Rome. Hidden because the main entrance is in a small alleyway off of the bustling Piazza delle Coppelle – the other secret entrance is through one of the back, private dining rooms of the massive restaurant Osteria delle Coppelle. Even the bathroom is somewhat hidden – behind a fake bookcase. Inside you will find a dark, intimate space much like a living room which makes Club Derriere the perfect spot for a nightcap and a popular after-hours spot for industry peeps. Their other clientele ranges from local professionals to diplomats, although there is the occasional in-the-know tourist.
Club Derriere’s menu is inspired by author Kurt Vonnegut and (like one of his stories) with each page and cocktail, another element is added to it. Simple ingredients, complex favors and easy to drink, all cocktails are made with love by a top-notch and super lovely bar staff.
Their signature drink is the Newton – a twist on the classic Gin & Tonic, with Hendrick’s Gin, clarified apple juice and lemongrass.
Theme Bar: MAKAI SURF & TIKI BAR
Via dei Magazzini generali 4 a-b-c (Testaccio)
Must-try cocktail: Donn’s Special Reserve Daiquiri
The very first Tiki Bar in Rome, Makai Surf & Tiki Bar is as original and unique as it can get – especially in Italy. Equal parts exotic and playful, the molto simpatico owners Camillo Affinita and Alessio Esposito took inspiration from the South Pacific, Hawaii, U.S. West Coast and Mexican cultures to create a fun, colorful and beautiful little oasis in the heart of Ostiense.
The upstairs bar is open and airy, while their dimly lit underground lounge feels a bit more intimate and sexy – like an underground Tiki Beach Party. It’s perfect for late-night drinks or for private parties or events. And now with its recent renovations and full kitchen – you can visit Makai for lunch, aperitivo and dinner.
The cocktails are Polynesian-inspired (as well as their food) but their most characteristic cocktail is the Donn’s Special Reserve Daiquiri (by Don Beach) made by the young yet extremely talented Lorenzo Verrucci.
Avant-Garde: RUDE CENTOCELLE
Via dei Castani, 228 (Centocelle)
Must-try cocktail: Porno Mariachi
The name, R.U.D.E, is an abbreviation of multiple words and definitions that in short means: Small Talk (poche chiacchiere). It’s really the perfect name for this ideal neighborhood bar in the cool and now up-and-coming Centocelle. But Rude’s approach is also a bit avant-garde. Owners Marco Zampilli and Cristian Ricci and their bar staff push the limits and much like with its name, the play on words (and your senses) are in constant motion here.
Their Pop-Art inspired drink menu by Michele Ferruccio is minimal but impactful (think less is more). They don’t disclose the exact ingredients or their Rude aromas- preferring to keep everything a mystery. All eight drinks are pre-batched the day of, in order to accommodate their large volume of customers. Also unique is that each drink has a music pairing and a coaster (with a QR code) will be given to you with that specific song for your drink, that you can download and listen to later on Spotify. This bar stimulates all of your senses simultaneously – from visuals, to sound and taste.
But the most important combination of all – Rude Centocelle manages to obtain a cool factor while keeping the warmth that can only be found at your neighborhood bar. Order the Porno Mariachi – but we can’t (and won’t) tell you why.