Why you should care
Because borrowing herbs, spices and greens from the salad bar to make boozy botanical beverages is pure genius.
The next time you find yourself in New York City, make a point of stopping by the Ovest Pizzoteca in West Chelsea. Look for bar manager Vincenzo Cangemi and ask for the Elisir d’Amore. When the drink arrives, don’t fret over the foliage that accompanies the gin-based beverage. It’s the presence of chamomile and endive leaves that propelled Cangemi into the finals of Bombay Sapphire Gin’s Most Imaginative Bartender National Competition after winning the New York regionals with this very delicious and peculiar drink.
“Elisir d’Amore is a combination of relaxation and aphrodisiac spices such as ginger, chamomile and coriander,” the 29-year-old Sicilian native explains about his botanical beverage that wowed the judges. “I wanted to create something light and delicate on the palate to bring out the botanicals of the gin. The blood orange taste from Solerno makes the citrus side of the drink richer, following the lemon juice combined with the reduction that will be our sour-floral side. Endive is meant to be our natural bitter.”
Go behind the scenes (see the link at the end of the story) for an extra goody: a cocktail recipe you can make at home.
Although Cangemi, known as Enzo, failed to win the national competition — the finals took place in Las Vegas on Sept. 10 and featured 39 bartenders from North America — his consolation prize is the wellspring of attention that his unique approach to mixology has attracted to the beverage side of Ovest, known for its Naples-style dining.
“Bartending is an art that needs to be done with passion,” the diminutive Italian explains. He blended his first cocktail at age 14 after stumbling on a friend’s cabinet filled with liquor — admitting, however, that it wasn’t the tasty delight he thought it would be. But he persisted until he came up with a very particular take on mixology that relies on vegetation to enhance flavor. “I wanted to make cocktails unique,” continues Cangemi, who bounced around Europe and the States to gather information. “I’ve been researching the great bartenders in Italy who have been crafting cocktails with many crazy ingredients. So I came up with using ingredients that you’re used to seeing in a salad to create a flavor that stays on your palate.”
After honing his skills in Europe and the U.S., Cangemi found a home at Ovest. A neighborhood joint focused on wood-fired pizza and wine became his playground for his innovative mixtures. Just two years after Cangemi became bar director, patrons were clamoring for his cocktails, and the culture of the restaurant began to change.
“America loves pizza and liquor, and I’m very happy to twist up the concept of the bar with my menu of drinks,” says Cangemi.
If you have a bad day, my drink will need to fix that without you telling me what to put in it.
Chances are, there will be other competitions in Cangemi’s future, as the 10-year mixology veteran fine-tunes his craft and learns more about various techniques through his travels around the globe. Always looking for ways to be ahead of his competitors, Cangemi hopes to bring a concept from East Asia to the U.S.
“In Japan, there is no menu for cocktails in many of the bars because the bartender needs to understand your emotions and what you need at that moment so he can put it in the drink for you,” he says of an idea he is considering for his bar at Ovest. “If you have a bad day, my drink will need to fix that without you telling me what to put in it. I haven’t tried it yet, but it is definitely in my plans.”
Cheers to that.