So I’m a bit measured when I ask Alberto Santoro — most people just call him Berto — to choose a cocktail for me. It’s the beginning of a Thursday-evening happy hour at Extra Virgin, and the barman known for his Old Overholt Manhattans feels me out.
“What do you like?” Santoro asks.
I tell him I like it all. I want him to make me the drink he was thinking about when I walked up. Santoro nods.
“I got it,” he says. He puts fresh strawberries in the bottom of a pint glass.
"Is that yours?” asks Jason Burton. The owner of the Lab, a beverage consultancy and coffee playground, is joining me for drinks and a bite of Extra Virgin’s pork belly.
“Actually, it’s mine,” Santoro jokes.
“Shebang,” he adds, lifting both hands back, palms up, as he steps away, drink finished. The result is bright but balanced — a red stop sign for whatever it was I had been talking about before my first sip.
Santoro, a finalist in Sunday’s Paris of the Plains bartending competition, has made me a modified version of the cocktail entry that earned him one of the contest’s 12 spots. The strawberries are joined by Plymouth gin, Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters, freshly squeezed lemon juice, mint syrup, and a strawberry and red-peppercorn shrub (house-made drinking vinegar) — topped with Boulevard Wheat. Santoro plans to crack his 12-bottle stash of Boulevard’s Saison-Brett (what he calls his “secret weapon,” a beverage to tempt beer nerds to break into Extra Virgin) and homemade bitters now aging in the space above the restaurant.
“I went up and tried it after a day, and it was right there,” he says.
In front of Burton, he places a more savory cocktail: Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Pimm’s No. 1 and Thatcher’s cucumber liqueur. It’s the kind of drink you might order after a day of hunting lions on an African savanna. Burton, a loquacious drinking companion, takes a sip and slips into a moment of silent reverence.
Santoro is just back from the Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, where he helped represent Manifesto in the Bar Brawl, cranking out 1,000 cocktails in three hours alongside Ryan Maybee, co-owner of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange and Manifesto. There, he also discovered a heretofore latent love of hats.
“I’ve never been a hat guy, but I haven’t taken a hat off for two weeks,” Santoro says, shrugging his shoulders at the idea.
Tonight he’s wearing a black pageboy cap, which dips and bobs as he works the center of the rectangular wooden bar that’s the focal point of Extra Virgin. A small dishwasher blows out steam beneath the wineglasses as drink orders roll out of a small black machine. The bar had started filling up by 4:45 p.m.
Fifteen minutes later, it’s hard to find a seat at the bar. One of the last goes to fellow Paris of the Plains competitor Jenn Tosatto, a mixologist at the Rieger. She and her sister take the places at one corner, next to Burton and me. She’s wearing a tuxedo T-shirt cut to show off the dog collar around her neck. (The leash is in her purse.) Santoro starts mixing her drink before she can ask for one.
“Shebang,” he says again, then puts the glass in front of her.
“Got any predictions for the competition?” I ask Santoro.
“Pain,” he says.