On Beverage: Novel menu at Union Square Cafe incorporates storied Italian influence into cocktails

On Beverage: Novel menu at Union Square Cafe incorporates storied Italian influence into cocktails

Italy is likely not the first country you think of when the word “cocktail” is mentioned. Nor the second or third, either, I bet. Sure, there’s the Negroni, but even that’s based on a drink called the Americano, and the other famous Italian cocktail, the Bellini, is really just a tarted up kir royale. Italy and cheese, sure. Wine? Certainly. Pasta? Obviously. But cocktails? Not so much.

But Stephen Mancini, wine and spirits director for Union Square Cafe in New York City, is out to change that perception.

“Since its opening, the Union Square Cafe has been recognized as a new American restaurant with a classic Italian soul,” he says. “I wanted a way to tap into that identity.”

The route Mancini wound up taking can be seen in this autumn’s Italian-influenced beverage program at Union Square Cafe. The program features special Italian wine listings, an exclusive fall wine dinner and a stellar cocktail list heavy on Italian ingredients and themes.

Stocking a wine cellar with six successive vintages of a famed “super Tuscan” is one thing; developing an Italianate cocktail list is quite another. Faced with a relative paucity of existing Italian cocktails, Mancini had to get creative.

“It took us about two to three weeks to develop the drinks,” he says. “In the end, we came up with about twelve to fifteen cocktails, nine of which made it to the menu.”

His approach was primarily to take existing, familiar cocktails and inject into each an Italian influence via the addition or substitution of ingredients. Thus, with the use of imported Sicilian blood orange juice in place of the regular Florida stuff, a Harvey Wallbanger becomes a Sicilian Wallbanger, and by swapping house-made limoncello and a drop of grappa for the vodka, sugar and lemon juice combination that is a Lemon Drop, he crafts instead a Forza Totti.

A more extreme makeover is given to the Brown Cow, which gets coffee-flavored tequila in place of the traditional coffee liqueur and an Italian accent of maraschino liqueur, emerging at the end as a La Macchina.

In some cases, Mancini riffs instead on an existing regional Italian drink, as when he updates the Spritz by using Prosecco in place of the usual white wine and soda water combination, and moderates the bitterness of the amaro with a cube of sugar. And by employing a more boldly flavored, less sweet Italian vermouth, the Union Square’s Negroni becomes, he says, the cocktail equivalent of “eating a steak.”

Perhaps even more interesting, though, is the way Union Square’s cocktail menu is presented to the customer. Eschewing organization by principle ingredient or price, Mancini lists his drinks in the same fashion as he does his Italian wines: by regional identity.

“I’ve looked around the city and all over, people have great cocktail programs,” Mancini says. “But I don’t see a lot of them telling a story. To me, because I see the cocktail list as a sister to our wine list, that’s important, and in arranging them by region, I think we’re telling a bit of a story.”

Mancini then tells me one of those stories, explaining that his personal favorite from the list, the Benevento, is named after the town in which its primary flavoring agent, a saffron-hued Italian liqueur, is distilled. It’s a minor piece of information, but it somehow piques my interest in the cocktail, to the point that I research similar recipes and come up with The Barristers Special, an obscure tipple of vodka, rum, rock candy syrup, and pineapple and lemon juice.

The Benevento’s substitution of Italian liqueur for rum and syrup, and lime for lemon, has no basis in the recipe I found, Mancini later tells me. But the fact that the “story” prompted my investigation makes me wonder if he has just opened the door to a new 21st century cocktail awareness. After all, most cocktails come with a tale that is at least as interesting as one about any wine, beer or spirit.