A couple days ago, some friends and I went to dell'anima, a new-ish Italian place in the West Village. It's primarily a wine bar and restaurant, but they're trying to introduce New Yorkers to the Italian custom of the aperitivo: a sort of Continental happy hour with cocktails, wine, and munchies like olives, pickled artichoke hearts, and other antipasti-type things to nibble on.
GM and partner Joe Campanale is quite the wine guy (he was formerly a sommelier at Babbo -- a pretty impressive accomplishment for anyone, but especially amazing considering that he's 23), but his restaurant has an interesting collection of house cocktails. He says that he and the bar staff enjoy the spicier, more bitter flavors out there (the bar has quite a collection of amari), and he credits Clinton Addison, dell'Anima's head bartender, for putting the cocktail list together.
When we walked into the restaurant, the first thing I spotted behind the bar were king-sized bottles of Regans' Orange and Angostura bitters, so I knew the bartenders would know their trade...and then when my eye ran across the shelves and saw things like Luxardo and Punt E Mes, I figured I was in for an enjoyable afternoon.
Fortunately, I was there for long enough, and with generous enough friends, that I was able to taste everything on the list. I started with a Roasted Orange Negroni. The Negroni works well with orange -- see the wonderful variation that is the Cinnabar Negroni, which doubles the Campari (!) and adds some orange bitters -- so I figured this would come together nicely. The bartender muddled a roasted orange, and added Miller's Gin, Campari, and Carpano Antica Formula, and served it up with an orange twist for an amazingly rich, spicy, elegant drink -- the Carpano Antica vermouth played very well with the Campari.
But there were a bunch more cocktails on the list to try.
My friend Heather got a Nardini Sour -- Nardini Aquavite (a fine grappa), lemon juice, egg white, and a slight drizzle of Nardini Amaro on top. This was good and citrusy. And as much as I like grappa, I think the cocktail would have lacked depth, though, without the Amaro drizzle. Much like the similar drops of Angostura atop a Pisco Sour, the Amaro added some complexity to the finished drink.
My friend Sam got a dell'animated, which was a combination of Branca Menta, espresso, and Russian Standard vodka. This one wasn't as much to my taste: I usually shy away from most vodka drinks, finding them to be essentially characterless (if you want to drink alcohol, you should taste the alcohol), but I certainly understand why they're on the menu here. After all, if you're opening a smart Italian restaurant in the West Village, you need to have something on the menu to appease the vodka-and-Red-Bull, little-black-dress-wearing crowd, which is going to be one of your core constituencies. But choosing espresso rather than Red Bull is a far classier move, and one that will be appreciated by people with actual tastebuds. (I'd never heard of the combination until about ten minutes before I tasted this drink, actually -- on the way to dell'anima, we passed a liquor store with a bottle of van Gogh Double Espresso Vodka in the window.) I thought the Branca Menta was an inspired creative touch -- it added complexity, and the mint flavor combined with the strong espresso was bracing. If this had been mixed incorrectly, it'd have tasted like mouthwash, but this was a balanced, refreshing drink.
Our friend Erica got a Michter's Maple: Michter's rye, maple syrup, and Noilly Prat vermouth. I thought the choice of French/dry vermouth with rye was an interesting choice that made for a yummy, complex drink. Bonus points from me as well for including Michter's, and I hadn't had maple syrup in a drink since having a Velvet Harvest at the Pegu Club a couple years ago (that drink included pear eau-de-vie, apple schnapps, falernum, maple syrup, lemon juice, egg white, and tincture of clove.)
And my friend Gib finished out the round with a Dark Corner: Corner Creek bourbon, Averna, and Rhum Clement. In a word, wow. It was a very strong and spicy drink with an unbelievable amount of depth. Amaro and whisk(e)y is another inspired combination on a cocktail list that seems to be full of them, and adding a rum into the mix just ups the ante.
Time for our second round: I started it off with an Amarena Crush: Junipero, Luxardo Maraschino, lemon juice, and a muddled amarena cherry. This drink was less to my taste; I found it a tad too sweet, and I think that a hair more of the gin or a little less Maraschino would've made for a more balanced drink. But this is a minor criticism: the flavors were good, and the earthy, almost funky note from the Luxardo Maraschino (another brand wouldn't have worked as well) complimented the heady juniper bomb of the gin. (I just could've done with a little less sweetness and a little more headiness, but YMMV, after all, as everyone has different tastes.) Again, I can see why this is on the menu -- you need at least one fruity sour-sweet drink for people who ordinarily order what passes for a Cosmopolitan in most bars in this city.
Heather followed this up with a Spritz -- Aperol, a splash of club soda, and a Lambrusco Bianco float. This was your standard aperitivo spritzer as found all over Italy, and was very light and orangey. Using the Lambrusco was a nice touch, I thought. This'd be a truly great summer-afternoon drink.
Sam had a Monte Bianco: Ketel One Citroen vodka (why do I always picture small French cars instead of sun-kissed lemons?), St. Germain elderflower liqueur, and Aperol. Also nice and light; the St. Germain and the Aperol work well together. (hmmm -- perhaps I should experiment with St. Germain and Lillet Blanc? Or would that be so light that it'd float right out of the glass?) Again, I'm not a vodka fan in general, and even less of a flavored-vodka fan, but I had no problems with this drink. Like its lighter, less alcholic cousin the Spritz, this'd be quite welcome on a hot day.
All in all, dell'anima doesn't emphasize its cocktail selection on its website, instead preferring to showcase its menu and its wine list. But that doesn't mean that there aren't really interesting things afoot behind the bar, and it's a useful reminder that the cocktailian temples aren't the only place that you can find creative, well-made drinks.