The perfect martini doesn't travel well

The elixir of the gods tends to lose a lot in translation in different parts of the globe

November 15, 2009|By Susan Spano | Tribune Newspapers

ROME — - "Mescolati, non agitati" is Italian for "stirred, not shaken," but to me it means a good martini is hard to find here - and in a lot of other places, for that matter.

I went looking for one on the last Sunday evening in August, the nadir of the year in Rome. It was hot even at 7 p.m., and everything was closed because Romans linger at the beach as long as they can before returning to town to face September.

On the Via Veneto, prime martini territory given its Fellini-esque "La Dolce Vita" connections, lobby bars in the grand hotels were shut tight, and maitre d's in oversize suits beckoned me into sad, empty sidewalk cafes.

At the top of the hill near the Porta Pinciana, I chatted with an American couple in Harry's Bar. After touring Turkey, they were on their way home and decided to treat themselves to $20 martinis. The woman said hers was good, but I didn't stop. I'm not keen on touristy Harry's.

Instead, I ended up in the courtyard bar at the Hassler Hotel overlooking the Spanish Steps, where I got a passable martini, although it came with limp potato chips, and it was stirred, not shaken, the way Agent 007 and I prefer.

I should have known better than to seek the elixir of the gods - a dry martini, straight up - in Rome. After all, I've ordered them from Chile to China with woefully inconsistent results. I am no advocate of globalization. But, honestly, a martini ought to be a martini, wherever you go.

Making a good one is, admittedly, a complicated business, partly because of conflicting versions of the cocktail's provenance. Some say a bartender in Martinez, Calif., created it out of Old Tom gin for a gold prospector who wanted something better to drink than the usual rotgut. Others say the martini was invented around the same time at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco.

In any event, the drink was flavored with vermouth, a fortified white wine flavored with herbs and spices, first marketed in 1863 by Martini & Rossi Co.

Martini & Rossi dry vermouth remains essential to the cocktail, although so little of it should be used that one recipe calls for simply "waving a bottle" over the glass. The trouble is that misguided bartenders often take vermouth to be the prime ingredient of a martini.

Imagine my horror when I invited a friend for a drink at the Hotel Lenox on the Left Bank in Paris. The Art Deco bar there has the look of a place where they know how to make a dry martini. But what arrived on a silver tray were two clunky, undersize martini glasses that had not been chilled but had been filled with a lamentable mixture of vodka and Martini & Rossi dry vermouth in 1-to-1 ratio, decorated - if you can call it that - with a small unpitted olive.

My friend and I toasted and sipped, then recoiled in unison. Perhaps it's no surprise that the French don't understand martinis, because they believe that hard-liquor cocktails blunt the taste buds for the more important meal that follows. I've heard, though, that you can get a top-notch version of the drink at luxury hotels such as the Crillon, Ritz and Henri IV in Paris.

Martini connoisseurship gives travelers the chance to visit such storied places as the Gritti Palace in a 16th-century Venetian palazzo, Winston Churchill's beloved Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech, Morocco, and the Yoshiro Taniguchi-designed Okura in Tokyo.

And when you also get a good martini, you never forget it. I well remember the one I had a few years ago at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, possibly on the same bar stool as Graham Greene.

Before that, while holed up in the wretched New Delhi YMCA guesthouse to write a story, I routinely finished my day at the Hotel Imperial for a fine martini, followed by delectable tandoori barbecue.

I loved drinking martinis elbow-to-elbow with politicos at the Willard InterContinental's Round Robin bar in Washington, and at the Hotel Astoria in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the bartender advised me to order my drink with creme de la creme Russian Standard vodka.

A really good martini engenders reverie, which is why I was pleased to get one in August at the Connaught Hotel near Grosvenor Square in the Mayfair district of London. The first-floor bar there features sleek, sexy, retro-Cubist decor. The waiter came with a silver shaker and a big, chilled flute on a tray, poured my drink and left me in paradise to determine my future and that of the world.

Martini moments like that seem rare. Others worry about climate change. I worry about the vanishing martini.

Recently, this concern was driven home over a cocktail at the Grand Hotel et Des Palmes in Palermo, a Sicilian landmark. The first-floor bar, named for the classic Sicilian novel "Il Gattopardo" ("The Leopard") by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, is a unique room, full of genteel red velvet and feathery ferns.

I sat there alone, seemingly the only guest in the hotel, a relic, myself, like the Liberty-style lighting fixtures. Angelo, the white-jacketed bartender, caught my mood, as good ones do, and in silent dignity made me a Belvedere vodka martini.

I sipped and nodded, then told him how happy I was to find a place like Il Gattopardo.

"Yes," he said, "but it's the last American hotel bar in town. All the others have gone."

"How sad," I said, imagining the poor souls outside, drinking beer at tables on the sidewalk.

When Angelo disappeared into the kitchen, I let my mind wander. The room's shadows deepened. I could hear my wristwatch ticking. Then I looked down and found nothing left in my glass but the memory of drinking a perfect martini at the last American bar in Palermo.

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