I recently posted an item on the New York Times' Diner's Journal blog about Christina Bini, a big fish from the small cocktail pond of Florence, Italy. Bini has been stolen from Tuscany by the owners of Il Matto, a new restaurant in Tribeca, who hired her to create their cocktail program—Bini's first in the U.S.
Lately, every time I encounter a prominent mixologist from outside the tight U.S.-UK cocktail circles, I am struck by how differently other parts of the world approach the art of the mixed drink. As advanced as cocktail science is in the English-speaking world, we do tend to set up certain rigid aesthetic and culinary borders and bugaboos for ourselves, somewhat judgmental rules that must be accepted and headed. Bini knows nothing of these. She's fine with vodka. She told me she "loved" her blender. And she'll embrace any ingredient as a potential cocktail players.
One commenter on the Times article noted that I did not mention if I liked any of the cocktails I described. Well, I was reporting on Bini and her cocktail menu, not reviewing them. I wasn't functioning as a critic. But I will say here that, of the eight or so Bini creations I tasted, I like two or three quite a bit, particularly the ones that offered an enticing answer to the tired old Bloody Mary. Overall, the drinks are original and provoking. You may not like them, being as unusual as they are, but it won't be because the drinks are badly made, or haven't been thought out.
As for the Martinis with vermouth-soaked stones, one tastes very little, if any, vermouth. It is essentially a very dry Martini, the kind they drank in the 1960s. However, there is a noticeable difference in taste between the Martinis with black stones and white stones. The latter were distinctly more saline, and thus, in my opinion, preferable, as the salt introduced an additional element to the drink.
One other thing: I would drink these cocktails with food, not by themselves. That is not a piece of advice I normally give. I like wine with dinner, not cocktails. But these drinks, so involving foodstuffs as they do, are made as meal accompaniments. Il Matto, indeed, intends to promote them that way. Here's the article:
Cocktail of the Italian Avant-Garde in TriBeCa
By Robert Simonson
The martinis prepared by Christina Bini, an Italian mixologist, at Il Matto — Matteo Boglione’s new TriBeCa restaurant, set to open in June at the old Arqua space on Church Street — will be served on the rocks. Actual rocks.
Ms. Bini, who is moving permanently from Florence to New York to head the drink program at Il Matto, devised her stone martinis while at Fusion, a noted Florentine cocktail bar where she worked for five years. They come in two varieties, one ballasted by a white stone from the Liguria region in northwest Italy; the other with a black stone from Mongolia. All the stones are soaked in vermouth for at least 12 hours before they are deposited in their drinks, resulting in an extremely dry and extremely eccentric martini.
“The white stones have more mineral components and are more salty, because they were near the sea,” said Il Matto’s general manager and sommelier, Antonio d’Ambrosio. (At a recent meeting Mr. d’Ambrosio translated for Ms. Bini, who speaks very little English.) “They are porous and release more vermouth into the drink.” The black stones come from a river. Their surfaces are smoother and thus deliver less vermouth, explained Mr. d’Ambrosio.
Ms. Bini said she came up with the idea “from my mind.” However, the notion is not altogether new. According to Lowell Edmunds’ 2003 book “Martini, Straight Up,” one Fred Pool came up with the idea of soaking stones in vermouth in the late ’60s, when ultra-dry martinis were de rigueur.
Mr. d’Ambrosio expects the stone martinis to be very popular — and to lose a lot of the rocks through theft. “People will just take them. I know it.”
The martinis are easily the simplest drinks on the debut menu of Ms. Bini, who, unlike most America’s haute mixologists, is not appalled by the sight of a blender and will put just about anything in it. Her often ostentatiously garnished drinks include la signorina, a green-hued, gin-based concoction adorned with an enormous piece of lettuce, a strawberry and a balsamic vinegar reduction. It could easily supplant the salad in your meal. The clamato mary seems to be Ms. Bini’s answer to both the bloody mary and the Canadian cocktail favorite the bloody caesar. Its name notwithstanding, the gin-based drink does not actually contain Clamato, the canned clam-tomato juice, at all, but a clam juice reduction.
The pasolini, meanwhile, is made of brandy, Frangelico, sugar, ricotta cheese and mixed berries, blended together. It looks like a parfait and tastes like dessert. Due to the unusual make-up of many of the drinks, only Ms. Bini and one close associate, also brought over from Italy, will mix the cocktails in the restaurant’s first weeks.
Other ingredients deployed in Ms. Bini’s menu — which is divided into savory/dry, salty and sweet cocktails — include peperoncini, Parmigiano cheese, beet juice, cherry tomatoes, zucchini and lots of salt and pepper. “Christina likes vegetables a lot more than fruit,” said Mr. d’Ambrosio.
Il Matto, 281 Church Street (White Street) TriBeCa.