Writer, comedian, and curling instructor. It only seems weird until you meet me.

A Night Behind the Bar.

A glass of Nebbiolo. A Grey Goose and soda. A craft bourbon on the rocks.  A Cosmopolitan.

So many stories start with a drink. This one starts with a bunch of them.

The Cosmo? It’s what a woman orders as she waits for a friend and possibly a return to life in the late nineties. The bourbon? A regular who is asked if it’s an Up or Down kind of night — Up is a high-end craft bourbon, Down is a Coors Light, and it all depends upon the way the day went. The Grey Goose? The Nebbiolo? A pair of Wall Streeters who loosen their ties, buff their egos, and get ready to talk bonds and ETFs and sports with a client still on his way — Grey Goose and soda for the louder one, a glass of Nebbiolo for the other.

It’s a slow Monday night at Fiorino in Summit, New Jersey, where the owners, generous spirits that they are, have allowed me to take up a post behind the bar. I’m not really bartending — I’m more like an error-prone bar back, observing and there to assist when I can.

Why? Well, after years of taking too much for granted, I’m learning about skills I haven’t appreciated nearly enough. Call it a late-in-life education, which sounds far better than a mid-life crisis. Whether it’s the stone that buttresses a front porch, the electricity that courses through my home, or the Manhattan placed in front of me at a bar — rye, up but in a rocks glass, with a cherry — I want to know more about how things end up the way they do. More specifically, I want to know how exceptionally well-crafted things end up that way.

While there’s no shortage of buzz about the current cocktail moment we’re living in, and the celebrity mixologists who extoll the virtues of, say, lingonberries or huckleberry twigs or vodka crafted by yak herders, rock star bartenders were not the ones I wanted to observe. I wanted to see craft, not celebrity. It wasn’t a dive bar I sought either, but a certain timeless tradition of bartending. The kind that involves careful attention to making drinks well but also the ability to listen to a regular and bring just the right amount of routine to an evening.  I preferred a bar that was an integral part of a great restaurant, where food wasn’t an afterthought, and a place where the bartenders still do things like wear vests.

Fiorino, in downtown Summit, New Jersey, is the kind of Italian restaurant every town wishes it had. Few do. The food, while never a daring high wire act — no whips or foams or feats of molecular gastronomy — is about fresh ingredients prepared simply and perfectly. There’s a quiet confidence to the place, and whether it’s the Biticci brothers at the front of the house or the ancient waiters who circulate seamlessly, it’s clear this is a restaurant that is comfortable in its own skin.  It knows who it is. It likes who it is. And, as a result, people like to dine there.

That said, I wasn’t headed to the dining room. The bar was for me.

I arrived at four o’clock for the evening shift, where I met Mentor Baticci. Mentor, like his brother Ilir, grew up in the business — part of an extended family of restaurateurs who have that ability to make people feel instantly comfortable. We chat about the restaurant, kids, life, this idea of mine for a book about craft.

I look over the drinks menu that I’ll pass out to the unsure. Daunting. There is no way I could remember it all or fashion them into something people would want to drink. I realize I will probably appear both clumsy and uninformed to guests.

Before long, Benny, the bartender who has the evening shift, returns from the short break he takes when the restaurant ends its lunch service.

Benny is all of 29, energetic, focused, detail-oriented. The pride he takes in his work is obvious, long before he says, “Everything I do, I try to do as well as I can.”

We talk a bit about how he ended up at at Fiorino five years ago, in a job that is part hospitality specialist, part liquid chef, and part therapist.

“I worked in corporate restaurants before I landed here, “ Benny says. “But a family place is so much better.”

Behind the bar, in the dining room as the wait staff folds napkins for the dinner shift, in the spotless kitchen, I can sense that. Not that every family-run restaurant is better than a Legal Seafoods or The Cheesecake Factory, but the ones that overachieve are superior.

Benny starts to explain the setup to me. There’s the glassware. As he explains the what, how, and when of each, I try to keep track. There are chilled glasses for bottled beer and tall glasses for clear liquor. There are quartinos for wine. There are glasses some customers like even if they’re not appropriate for their drink — he remembers the customers and their concoctions.

He tells me a few things about drink preparation. Anything without citrus is stirred — 21 revolutions — and not shaken, because concern about bruising the liquor is au courant. He says he still likes his drinks shaken, and I tend to agree with him. He tells me that when a newcomer orders a martini, vodka or gin, he makes a quick calculation about the use of dry vermouth — more if they’re over the age of 40, less or none if they’re under — unless the customer is specific, as habitual martini drinkers can be. He shows me where to find the freshly squeezed lime juice, the house made sour mix, the small bottles of craft tonic that have replaced the syrupy version from the soda gun. I realize I’m a dilettante who thought my ability to make one decent Manhattan, at home, for myself, might help me here — and that Benny was prepping for the evening long before I ever sauntered in. 

As the night goes on, there are many glasses of wine ordered, along with a steady stream of Sidecars and Lemon Drop Martinis and Moscow Mules, all crafted by Benny. None are greeted with anything less than satisfaction. Somehow, my own clumsiness doesn’t betray my unprofessional status to the Wall Streeters, who order from me while Benny is tending to a group at the far end of the bar. I handle the Grey Goose and soda well enough, and shakily pour a quartino of one of the wines available by the glass. I know a bit about pour counts — instead of measuring in jiggers, the bottle is tipped and counting time lets the skilled bartender know when the right amount has been poured — but I struggle to get the flow from the stopper constant. So, and I I’m afraid I have to confess this to the Biticci family, a few patrons had drinks that were definitely appreciated but not particularly fiscally sound for the restaurant. But I’m fairly certain the brothers would prefer that over stingy.

It was an unusually slow night, being Monday after a very busy Mother’s Day. Still, there was a moment when orders arrived from the wait staff in rapid succession and the crowd at the bar suddenly grew. I’ve long thought of a well-run bar as a place to relax, and indeed it is, but it’s stressful behind it. Taking orders from people standing at the bar, getting food orders to those perched on stools, keeping the tabs straight, filling the orders of the wait staff, clearing glassware, stocking the clean glassware that is returned by the dishwashers, mopping the bar top, changing an empty draught keg. Even on a slow Monday, when I’m not even truly bartending, I’m not relaxed, despite my attempts to appear that way. I can’t imagine when it’s thirsty people three rows deep, all angling for a bartender’s attention and shouting orders four at a time.

Of course, when you are behind the bar, an image of calm is the only one you can project. Who wants drinks from a harried bartender? The good ones make it look easy.

“I may be having one conversation, but I’m listening to everyone at the bar,” Benny tells me. “And remember that a bartender can’t walk away from someone like a server can. You’re there, with the person, the whole time.” Interesting point. Screw up at the bar and you have to stare at the person you disappointed for the next hour or so.

On the night I join him, Benny is twitchy. Too slow, not enough action. He’s rocking on his heels, scanning through the window to see which regular might be about to enter the restaurant so he can start working on their drink. It’s a long shift if you’re not moving.

A couple comes in and elects, like the best couples do, to have dinner at the bar. Originally from Poland, they’re both physicians with an interest in wine. They like everything Benny pours but I sense it’s less about the wine and more about the way he makes them feel about themselves. They are out for a night, away from the stresses that things like jobs and kids create, enjoying the frankness that comes when you’re talking with people you don’t really know, buoyed by the wine and the distance we all like to put between us and our everyday lives.

The night has a rhythm, the mood changing when the sun goes down and the interior starts to glow. Faces become a bit flushed, conversations grow more animated. No one is even close to what anyone would consider drunk but a more relaxed mode sets in. Another Sidecar is made, and Benny shows me how it’s important to aim the dash of bitters right on the sugar cube so it’s easier to break up when the muddling happens. A quartino of wine is filled, the first part of the pour done aggressively to avoid spilling it. A Stoli martini is poured into a glass and is the perfect amount. Benny says he can tell when it’s right by the weight of the shaker. Little things are everything to a bartender, especially if it’s busy and speed is essential.

Eventually, the night begins to wind down, earlier than it would at a hot spot in the city or a beer chugging sports bar. The guy with the Grey Goose and soda wants one more, no soda this time. Another guy wants a food order wrapped so he can take it home for his family. With only a few people still nursing their drinks at the bar, and a few tables working on dessert, Benny begins to break things down, removing and washing the pour mats, wrapping the fruit to store in the fridge, washing every surface in sight. I’m fairly sure you can tell a lot about a restaurant by the cleanliness standards at the bar, so I’m not surprised that every surface here is thoroughly scrubbed. I help out, happy to be able to contribute to the grunt work of cleanup.

I’ve been behind the bar since just before five o’clock — it’s now a little past 10. I’m tired and I wasn’t even doing much. Dead tired, actually, but sort of buzzed at the same time, and not because I tried a half-glass of that Cab from Walla Walla. Benny tells me that after a busy night, the adrenaline courses through him, and he isn’t able to sleep for at least three hours. He’s one of those prudent bartenders, not a big drinker, so he doesn’t cap off his shifts with a few hours at a dive bar on the way home. For me, a little tired but with a weird energy at the same time, I figure regular bartending could lead straight to AA.

Trained in the art of hospitality like they are, a simple plate of chicken, spinach, and potatoes arrives for me as I finish putting away some clean stemware. A glass of Nebbiolo is poured. The lights have dimmed, and I talk to some of the staff about home renovations, cars, and life. It’s all close to perfect, much like the night the bar just provided, without drama or fanfare, to the people who took their place at it.

“I may be having one conversation, but I’m listening to everyone at the bar.”
Behind the Bar