You Can Learn a Lot From Roman Bartenders

A.D. 2023. Until recently, Rome had existed in the shadow of cocktail capitals such as London, Copenhagen, and Paris. Rome’s hotel bars had a primarily international clientele and mostly offered the same standard cocktails across the board. Although “aperitivo” hour, where purchasing a drink gives customers access to a nice spread of snacks, was a beloved daily ritual throughout Italy, drink options were usually limited to a glass of wine or an Aperol spritz.

However, change is on the horizon, thanks to an army of inventive and ambitious bar owners, bartenders, and innovators passionately invested in the goal of recasting the “Eternal City” as a progressive cocktail destination. They have collectively brought about an emergence of colorful, original and classic cocktails and menus artistically reinvented in a definitively Italian context.

Setting the Scene

The Court Rooftop Bar (boasting one of the best views of the Colosseum in town), Jim’s Bar at the Singer Palace Hotel, and Il Vizio at the Sina Bristol Bernini are among boutique hotel bars recognized as destinations for Rome denizens and visitors seeking spots where the drinks, dining, and ambiance are equal parts sophisticated.

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The Court Rooftop Bar features one of the best views of the Colosseum. (Photo: Elyse Glickman)

Rome’s cocktail renaissance, however, is just as exciting in independently-owned spots like Freni e Frizioni (Trastevere), LORE (San Lorenzo), and Drink Kong (Monti). While delivering the creativity and originality customers are thirsty for, they have also infused life into their locales in a similar fashion to the way good bars/restaurants have in places like New York City’s Meatpacking District, Chicago’s Logan Square, and Los Angeles’ Downtown Arts on our shores.

Lauren Caramico, founder of Davvero Rome (specializing in custom food tours privately and in collaboration with Sofitel Borghese as an exclusive amenity for hotel guests) is so committed to the success of the Rome bar scene that she stresses her cocktail-focused itineraries be known as “VIP Bar Tours.” These tours not only add to the city’s dining experience but promise to push things forward in ways well-traveled locals and visitors can appreciate.

Even with different price points and clienteles, Drink Kong, Freni e Frizioni, The Court, and The Jerry Thomas Project—all essential stops on her tours—have landed on the “World’s Best” list at different times.

rome cocktail scene
Matteo Zed, a forerunner of the modern Roman
cocktail bar.
Photo: Elyse Glickman

At aperitivo hour on my first night in Rome, she introduced me to Matteo Zed and Tony Parlapiano, whom she says are credited as forerunners of the modern Roman cocktail bar. The former New York City ad executive encourages bartenders and owners visiting from the U.S. and elsewhere to sign up for her VIP Bar Tour, as they can be inspired by the way their Italian counterparts are working separately, collaboratively, and diligently to elevate their industry and community.

Over drinks and substantial snacks (including hot slices of “Roman”-style pizza) at casual neighborhood bars, both Zed and Parlapiano start their stories by reflecting back to a time when wholesalers, corporate liquor brands, and public policy put numerous restrictions on local bars that prevented them from reaching their full potential and accessibility to a broader variety of customers. This was not during antiquity, but the 2000s, when the craft cocktail movement in the U.S. was reaching full speed beyond New York City.

All Roads Lead (Back) to Rome

By 2010, The Jerry Thomas Project, co-founded by Parlapiano and Leonardo Leuci, Alessandro Procoli, and Roberto Artusio, took on the establishment. The prohibition-style bar was devised as an exclusive meeting place for like-minded bartenders, spirits industry professionals, and cocktail aficionados to exchange information, ideas, and inspiration. Parlapiano, who was already 20 years into his career at that point, still pours his passion for craft cocktails into the establishment. He credits his continued success to his insatiable love of learning and history.

Over sophisticated cocktails at LORE, which doubles as a pastry and coffee shop with a spare setting emphasizing the building’s medieval architecture, Parlapiano affirmed, “When I started the Jerry Thomas Project, I had been studying the history of cocktails for years. [In the 2000s,] I got completely caught up in the cocktail book craze and started my collection with David A. Embury’s The Fine Art of  Mixing Drinks from a U.S. website for $1, which cost about $20 to ship, and an old Jerry Thomas book for about $20. It’s interesting to note that some people have told me about their paying €1000 for a Jerry Thomas book more recently.”  

The lesson Parlapiano takes from this is that it is not only important to be ahead of the game with trends, but also be proactive when learning what made Thomas and his contemporaries from the late-19th to mid 20th century successful and innovative in their day. Although he looks back on his early days as a “hipster” who wanted to make bartending trendy, he admits he has come a long way in his outlook.

“The most important thing a bartender can learn is that beyond resurrecting old cocktail recipes, you need to bring a point of view to your bar and cocktails that people will recognize and be drawn to,” continues Parlapiano, on his bar’s evolution and earning a spot on the “World's 50 Best Bars” for several years running. “When we first started planning our bar program, it was about finding inspiration in the classics Jerry Thomas established and moving ahead and inspiring our clientele to try new things and ask questions. Over time, we continued to ask questions here and whenever we went abroad.”

Parlapiano discusses how he has implemented his bar with a variety of machines and tools, such as centrifuges and dehydrators, to empower himself and his crew to apply their knowledge and creativity. In the middle of the last decade, he helped develop courses for the Campari Academy Rome and teamed up with distilleries to develop a whiskey as well as a genever similar in character to what was around when his bar’s namesake was active. However, regardless of what anybody does to broaden his or her skills, he advises respecting a recipe’s origins, so what Thomas and others intended won’t get diluted in the process.

Communication is also important, so much so that he traveled to, lived in, and worked in New York and mastered English. He encourages young bartenders to learn English with the same mindset. “If you are living in a big city like Rome or Florence, you’re going to get an international crowd,” he says. “The best guests are the most well-traveled and the most supportive of the craft.” 

“Rome is now part of this culture where locals are now frequenting bars known for their cocktail menus,” concurs Zed over traditional Aperol spritz drinks and fresh pizza at Doppiozeroo, a neighborhood hangout in the Ostiense district that's also undergoing a renaissance. The veteran bartender and bar manager of The Court also credits Roman and Italian bartenders who spent a good part of their career traveling and brought back everything they learned to Italy.

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A cocktail at Jim's Bar. (Photo: Federica Geirola)

“Rome used to be a big, international village rather than a cosmopolitain city like New York City or London,” he recalls. “Now, with the recent developments, many major hotel companies have started investing in Rome, and in the next year or two, we will be seeing Bulgari Hotel Rome, Nobu Hotels, Rosewood Hotels, Four Seasons, and Edition open luxury hotels. With this, we’re now in a place where we can become the city of the future. However, I know some of these hotels will be using the old school bartending system in their bars. The Court at the Palazzo Manfredi hotel is a [bit of an outlier] because I have brought my experience from America and other countries into it.”

Zed points out that the original goal was to make The Court “not so much a hotel bar,” but a standout experience drawing customers beyond the hotel. “I had a vision for what I wanted to do with The Court, and sometimes I feel I am lucky I still have a job,” he says, musing about cases when even newer hotel bars have a great vibe but may have to operate around a number of restrictions. His approach, to unite and conquer cocktail enthusiasts’ hearts, is still seen as revolutionary in some circles.

After Aperitivo….

The Court features a mix of full-strength cocktails, low-ABV drinks, and mocktails that are twists on familiar favorites such as the Aperol spritz, Negroni, Manhattans, and Martinis that not only delight curious customers but encourage them to expand their knowledge on cocktails as well as Italian spirits. “As we are Italian, we may not appreciate our own spirits as much as we should,” he explains. “It’s like being an American and taking Bourbon for granted. We want to give new flavor to familiar cocktails as a way to show what’s best about older Italian spirits and newer ones like Amaro Formidable, made in Rome. We also want to draw attention to wonderful Italian gins coming into the market as well.

While mezcals from Mexico are gaining momentum among imported spirits with his customers, Zed wants to carry his customers beyond his palomas into original drinks with interesting Italian components and modern techniques.

“We do a lot of our work in collaboration with the kitchen, which gives us access to sous vides and other machines that expand what we can do,” Zed details. “For example, while many places in America put out similar takes on the Bloody Mary, different bars and bartenders in Rome will have a different idea of how to mix, prepare, and serve it. However, our biggest strength is that we put a lot of soul and passion into everything we do—not just into the drinks, but the job itself. Our getting ranked in World's 50 Best Bars and participating in international events like Tales of the Cocktail is helping us spread word about the way we are doing things.”

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A cocktail at the Jerry Thomas Project. (Photo: Elyse Glickman)

Turning to Lauren, he adds, “We now have food and bar tourism, where people come from around the world specifically to seek out and try bars like ours from the World's 50 Best Bars list. The most important thing I learned in the U.S., is that being a success in the business is to take a 360-degree approach. It’s not enough to be a great bartender, but also a great waiter, sommelier, maître d', and great all around professional. In Italy, a bartender was primarily a bartender and was not expected to do anything else. Today, we are free to do the job we want to do, be great professionals, be fearless, and be able to use critical thinking in terms of what works and what doesn’t in our businesses.”

Zed expands on this by emphasizing that beyond clever menus, the service has to be great, not only for the benefit of the customers, but the benefit of the whole team, noting that a welcoming smile from one person on staff will set customers up to have a great experience. It can make the difference between what makes a good cocktail and a great cocktail in the perspective of the customer.

Bread and Circuses

Food is another way Rome’s top bars set themselves apart. According to long-standing Italian tradition, a buffet of food is served at aperitivo hour and is complimentary regardless of what drink or wine the customer orders. The top bars, however, are having fun breaking with tradition.

aperitivo buffet
Freni e Frizioni offers a mostly vegetarian food spread for its aperitivo hour. (Photo: Elyse Glickman)

At The Court, sandwiches and small bites with unusual combinations of fillings are brought out on a rack used for high tea presentations. Freni e Frizioni draws customers with its mostly vegetarian food spread in its former auto shop space, while Drink Kong brings out a variety of bites that are as quirky and conversation starting as their libations. At Jim’s Bar at the Singer Palace Hotel, food selection, from tempura-breaded veggies to curried meatballs, is eclectic and stylish.

Through her work as bar manager at Jim’s Bar and her other professional pursuits (such as a television show with

instruction on food and cocktail pairing), Federica Geirola builds her cocktail and mocktail menus on the basis of what foods and spirits work best together. Like her colleagues, she works enthusiastically with chefs and learned how to use unusual food ingredients in her drinks. Her goal for Jim’s Bar: Making drinks that are easy for customers to recognize yet challenges their taste buds and expectations.

rome italy bars
Bar Manager Federica Geirola at Jim's Bar.
Photo courtesy of Federica Geirola

“You’re not your drink list and your drink list is not you,” she says. “Your drink lists are a part of your experiences, a story you want to tell. It can be a challenge staying within your budget while making your client happy and amazed, and you should never forget to have fun. I feel the pandemic gave us [bartenders] time to think about our lifestyle and our mindset. My customers want to spend quality time in a calm place with great vibes. For this reason, one thing that has helped me connect with customers is traveling around the world, allowing me to understand different cultures, seeing new places, and having experiences with locals as a customer. I then transform all these experiences into my drinks and into the service at Jim’s Bar.”

Geirola notes that to push clients to their most adventurous state, a bartender needs to exude experience, charisma, and empathy. When meeting a new customer, one has to be intuitive and see whether he or she is open to a new experience of taste. Even with low-alcohol drinks and non-alcoholic drinks trending, they still require that memorable “wow factor” and must be versatile in terms of how they pair with different foods and moods.     

“These are all goals that are part of the bar industry in Italy,” she says. “The way I approach my job is like a journey, but I believe people from abroad are ready for it. However, inclusion is more important than ever, here and around the world. I was the first foreign female to participate in a bar event in Saudi Arabia. In addition to stressing the importance of great experiences, I am also engaged in the battle for inclusion in the bar, not only as a ‘female managing the bar’ in a ‘male world,’ but also as a professional helping my peers understand that people who support our businesses want a cocktail made for them and not one made for bartenders, regardless of whether a drink is full-strength, low ABV, or alcohol free.”  

While Geirola integrates some old school “wow” into her work at Jim’s Bar with flair bartending and finishing a cocktail with novel garnishes, the Bologna native and Romagna-bred bar manager also takes the values she grew up with to her job, which includes an emphasis on consistently excellent food and hospitality. “On our menu, I underlined the signature drink menu with the line, ‘from Jim’s WITH LOVE.’ Love is the key to our success, poured into communication with clients and one another, and in preparing food and drinks.”

Bars of Note

The Court Rooftop Bar

Palazzo ManfrediVia Labicana, 125, 00184 Roma RM, 



Via Ostiense, 68, 00154, Roma, Italy


Drink Kong

Piazza di S. Martino Ai Monti, 8, 00154 Roma RM, Italy


Freni e Frizioni

Via del Politeama, 4, 00153 Roma RM, Italy (Trastavere)


The Jerry Thomas Project

Vicolo Cellini, 30, 00186 Roma RM, Italy


Jim’s Bar

Singer Palace Hotel, Via Alessandro Specchi, 10, 00186 Roma RM



Via dei Sabelli, 51, 00185 Roma RM, Italy


Settimo Roman Cuisine & Terrace

Sofitel Borghese Rome, Via Lombardi


Il Vizio Restaurant and Bar

Sina Bernini Bristol, Piazza Barberini, 23 - 00187 Rome


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