(I wrote this soon after my first visit to The Jerry Thomas Project. I’ve since been back, though not as often as I’d like. The city has also seen an explosion of high-end cocktail bars in the last few years. While I haven’t been to all of them yet, I’ve tried a fair few of the top contenders. I still find JT to be the best all around experience due to the consistent excellence of the cocktails paired with perfect service.)
Recently I’ve had the pleasure of sipping a cocktail or three at the Jerry Thomas Project, a speakeasy here in Rome. Now, I have always been grumpy about the speakeasy trend in the States, mostly because I don’t like having to plan ahead to have an excellent drink. In cities like San Francisco or New York, there are so many high quality offerings in so many different kinds of cocktail bars that it becomes simple to imbibe the best and still avoid making reservations. In Rome, the selection is more restricted.
Let me put it in perspective. I love, adore, delight in great cocktails, deep spirits lists, and bartenders that appreciate my requests and improve upon my fantasies. These things, however, are not historically among the wonders of Rome. While it is easy to find a drinkable Negroni or a Spritz, and the occasional bar will turn out a passable Old Fashioned if I am very specific with the bartender, someone coming from a historically cocktail centered city like SF is going to miss the ubiquitous high quality of the drinking culture. By someone I mean me, in case that wasn’t clear.
Cut to a couple weeks ago, when I went out to girls’ night at a place my embarrassingly cool hair stylist had fleetingly mentioned (and that I totally pretended to know already, because you have to maintain credibility with your stylist). I got to the unmarked door and rang the bell, rolling my eyes at the process and hoping this place was worth the sweaty bus ride to the Centro Storico. Trying not to feel ridiculous, I gave the password and the name of my friend. Minutes later, seated on a comfortable pouf, I was explaining to the charming (bearded) gentleman semi-hopefully what exactly I was seeking in a cocktail.
The perfectly balanced and wonderfully complex martini of Sipsmith London Dry Gin, Vermouth del Professore and a teensy dash of bergamot bitters he brought me soothed a homesickness that I did not even know I felt.
When the aforementioned gentleman returned to check in, the relief and pleasure I felt must have been clear to him. We ended up talking, and I discovered that they have a lovely deep spirits collection, that the vermouth they use is their own production, and that I had found a sort of spiritual home in this city full of churches.
You’re thinking, “It’s just a bar, Homie, don’t be so dramatic!” Maybe, but it is a damn good bar. You like gin? They have the best, from Genevers to London Dry, and they’ll make you the right cocktail with each. Rum, you say? The last time I was there I sniffed out some of their selections, and they are not playing. I think whisky, scotch, bourbon, rye go without saying. But the best part? The part that makes my Mexican heart flutter in my chest and brings an absurd smile to my face? Mezcal! Not only do they have a well-curated selection including anonymous looking bottles that probably aren’t available to mere mortals, but the owner behind the bar is passionate about and expert with them.
Friends, I sipped things I had never even heard of. This is not to be taken lightly. This is any spirits lover’s dream-to have every visit to the bar be a learning experience with the lingering finish of shared enthusiasm. The fact that I have found a place of that caliber in Rome is a gift from a whole pantheon of wine gods.
Is it as good as the spots in SF, New York or London? I would say yes, it is. Like everything, it is slightly different from its hometown counterparts, due in part to its dual role as a bar serving the Italian palate and a locus for greater visibility of cocktail culture in Italy. I think they do an admirable job of being accessible to the less trained palate and interesting for aficionados. The only thing I wish is that I didn’t have to make reservations, but such is the price I must pay to have my gin and drink it too.