A review of two of Rome’s most prolific cocktail bars.
Sometimes, the best of things come unannounced and when they are not sought after. During our recent sojourn in Rome, whilst waiting to make a reservation at the highly recommended Jerry Thomas Project, the Dram Attic family chanced upon a less heralded triumph. In the back streets of Trastevere, Rome, just a skip and jump from the erstwhile abode of Dante Aliglieri, no less than the author of hell itself, heaven awaited us, and went by the name of Niji.
In this tiny place, in an unassuming neighbourhood, hiding behind a beautiful red door, was a world of spirits and cocktails, waiting to be explored. Walls adorned with quirky art, subtle homages to Frida Kahlo, cosy armchairs around a fireplace, well stocked bar, fascinating glassware, the list is endless.
We immediately felt at home. Bartender Marco and Alessandro proceeded to investigate our tastes and whipped up some fine drinks with great flair. One Boulevardier and Rob Roy later, we knew we had found gold. In the course of our conversation with Marco and Alessandro, we mentioned that we were trying to get a reservation the next evening at The Jerry Thomas Project. Like any respectable bartender, they gave us a thumbs-up and told us we should definitely pay a visit. A few more Manhattans, oysters, Taliskers, and Sazeracs later, it was time to call it a night. But something told us we’d be seeing them again.
The next evening, we managed a reservation at The Jerry Thomas Project for 10 pm. Password in hand, we ventured off into the land of the legend to see what the fuss was about.
As with any typical speakeasy, the ritual was the same, a knock on the door, a peeping slot through which a gentleman asked us the password, then kindly ushered us in where the hostess greeted us and showed us to our…table? We were seated on two bar stools at a piano. Yes. Quirky as that was, it was far from comfortable and surely, Count Basie would be turning in his grave if he saw someone place drinks on a piano! The little place started getting crowded and we soon had to share our piano-top with another couple, leaving us with even less room than before. We ordered our drinks, waited politely, and took a look around. Our drinks arrived in the form of a Mezcal and cacao twist on the Negroni and a concoction of Chartreuse and Benedictine, which we returned for being a tad sweet.
The waitress was very polite about it and even gave us a range of alternative drink options based on my personal taste in alcohol. The second drink, a classic New Orleans favourite, the Vieux Carre was far more balanced and was characteristically smoky, just the way I like it.
2/3 was a good score, but was it good enough when the place came so highly recommended? Maybe if the bartenders looked less serious, smiled a little and made some conversation, we wouldn’t have felt like we were attending the Easter Bunny’s funeral. Unfortunately, Jerry Thomas Project seems to take itself a little too seriously.
While the place was technically fantastic and beautifully conceptualized, we still found ourselves leaving after a single well-crafted drink to return to the welcome embrace of our new favourite speakeasy, Niji. Here, we felt like we were welcome, appreciated, and at home. Warm greetings, smiles, a friendly nod, and a seat at the bar, our favourite place! All was right with the world again.
The key difference between the two is kind of an important one. While both serve expertly crafted drinks, what got our attention at Niji was the warmth and cosiness that kept us imbibing well into the witching hour as Marco, Alessandro, and the team made us smile, laugh, and swoon at their marvellous concoctions.
While both bars displayed great flair and aesthetic, what Jerry Thomas Project lacked in hospitality, Niji more than made up in across the bar banter, sharing of whisky knowledge and chat, charming anecdotes, and humility. Each drink seemed to further seal the bond between the bartenders and the customer, leaving us more than content.
If you’re a bartender, there is something to learn from this. Don’t get wrapped up in the act so much that you miss out on making a connection and adding a personal touch. Good service can always elevate a drink, but a good drink is never enough to elevate average service. If you focus on the perfect drink, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose; but if you focus on making your guest happy, you win every time.
The key takeaway from this experience as a customer would be – the hype isn’t always real and sometimes, you have to take those chances, trust your instinct, and who knows what gems you’ll discover if you keep your eyes and ears open?
Isn’t that what speakeasies are about? Secrets just waiting to be discovered.
The Jerry Thomas Project is at Vicolo Cellini, 30, Roma, Italy
Facebook: The Jerry Thomas Project
Niji is at Via dei Vascellari, 35, 00153 Roma, Italy
Facebook: Niji Roma