Mixing it up with Italy’s Top Bartender
Patrick Pistolesi knows Rome and its drinking scene. The renowned Irish-Italian barman grew up in the Eternal City and, for more than 20 years, he served up cocktails at the capital’s most iconic night spots. But summers spent in Dublin also gave the future tippler a taste of more casual pub culture from his Irish cousins. From no-name, no-frills boltholes to internationally recognized lounges, Pistolesi worked his way around bar counters to become one of Italy’s best bartenders and Rome’s reigning king of cocktails — his last name alone is one of the active ingredients in the evolution of Italy’s craft cocktail scene.
It’s funny. Interviewing Patrick, I realize our paths have crisscrossed around Rome for a decade and then some. While he was slinging cheap beer and gimmick cocktails in a Testaccio dive, I was front row flirting for free drinks. Some how our conversations moved past “on the house, wink” to an actual friendship. I over-ordered his fabulous Negroni Sbagliato and French 75s, and then let him free-style on anything. It’s never been about flair or difficulty for the 40-year-old mixologist.
“You definitely need ability,” he said, “but you have to be curious, empathic, cheeky and smiley. Remember: people come to the bar to have a good time. Nobody wants a lesson after work.” Patrick pioneered Rome’s cocktail scene, personally curating epic locations like Barnum Caffe, The Gin Corner and Caffe Propaganda, and now his very own Drink Kong.
The Best Bar in Rome
Creating an easy, slide-up-to-the-bar-after-work vibe is Pistolesi’s forte and Drink Kong is his masterpiece. For me the vibe is perfect – a mix of 1980s meets Blade Runner, with a moody atmosphere. Taking inspiration for sci fi films and Japanese manga comic books – two of Pistolesi’s passions, Kong is a 3,229-square-foot labyrinth of dark-hued lounges, backlit bars, neon lights, harlequin floors and arcade games — consider it an homage to Pistolesi’s love of neo-noir 1980s futurism.
Kong is all about trust. It’s a self-proclaimed “instinct bar,” with a menu based on flavor. Yes, you can get a negroni, but bartenders encourage you to talk about what you like and then trust them to choose one of the carefully crafted seasonal drinks, like Summer Kup, a gin cocktail with grape juice, sambuca (an Italian anise-flavored liqueur) and Scottish peaches. Keep your eye on the ice — smooth, large cubes imprinted with Kong’s logo.
Let’s talk about space. Because there is a lot of it. Enter Kong, and there are choices. A lounge room to the left, with low tables and divans, an wide, open bar front and center, and around to the right, a side bar with small live music area. As beautiful and stylish as they each is, what I want out of Kong is privacy so I head toward the bathroom, and not just for the free arcade. There are two beautifully decorated Omakase rooms. Pass through the shoji doors, and I’m in a tiny, cherry-wood-paneled space features a wall of caged alcoves holding rare whiskeys and sake, and a 10-seat table reserved for private tastings and master classes where Pistolesi hosts his exclusive Cocktail Confidential nights.
Patrick’s watering holes in Rome
Freni e Frizioni
According to Pistolesi, Freni e Frizioni in Trastevere is a “good street bar with a punk attitude.” Set up like a car repair shop, the street-side stop serves up great alt-rock-inspired drinks (The New York Dolls is a violet-hued tipple of vodka, lavender liqueur and pink grapefruit) and draws a crowd for aperitivi (and its free buffet of nibbles) between 7 and 10 p.m. “There are a lot of people diving in and out of the bar, and it’s a great scene,” Pistolesi said.
Tiki Tiki Roof
“In Rome, you can’t miss the rooftops and there are several with great bars,” Pistolesi said. One of the mixologist’s recent favorites is this island-themed terrace at La Griffe MGallery by Sofitel near Termini Train Station. Come for the mojitos, but stay for the views.
The Divinity Terrace Lounge Bar
Another of the bartender’s recommendations is this scenic spot atop The Pantheon Iconic Rome Hotel. The alfresco lounge sits eye-to-eye with Rome’s beloved ancient monument and lets the view inspire its drink menu with cocktails like Jupiter’s Martini, an ode to the supreme divinity of Roman mythology.
In need of a classic martini? Pistolesi heads to Baccano, near the Trevi Fountain. The French-style brasserie is cozy and elegant with woven seats, leather booths and a well-stocked oyster bar. Lower Eastsiders, tell me if you get a Balthazar vibe.
“Baccano is [a] more serious restaurant bar and the food is great,” he said, “but you’re there for the full, good martini that just comes with style.” His choice: the extra dry Baccano Martini with a twist of lemon.
Pistolesi also grabs a seat at this back-alley speakeasy on Vicolo delle Coppelle, near Piazza Navona. Another secretive spot that requires a password, the tiny bar is all about style, from its exposed walls and leather chairs to the jazz tunes that permeate the moody atmosphere. Its innovative drinks rotate regularly, but past libations have included Floral and Vanity, a spirited combination of tequila, lime, elderflower and agave syrup.
The Jerry Thomas Speakeasy
Pistolesi’s late-night lineup always includes this vanguard speakeasy that is credited with introducing craft cocktails to the Eternal City. “This is the bar that made [Rome’s cocktail scene] happen,” Pistolesi said. “Before Jerry Thomas, no one was making or drinking quality cocktails.”
To enter the No. 50 best bar in the world, you’ll need a reservation, the password and a nominal membership fee, but it’s a small price to pay. The bartenders here are some of the very best in the city, and they will change up the menu on a whim. If you can’t decide what to order, you can count on a mean negroni here.
In This Episode
(00:56): Guest Patrick Pistolesi, Drink Kong
(03:28): Origin Story
(16:07): New York, New York
(26:51): Inside Drink Kong
(30:51): Cocktail Confidential
A version of this article first appeared in Forbes Travel, August 2019.