Antonio started his career in 1963 behind a bar in San Domenico before moving to San Remo on the Italian Riviera. He then spent some considerable time as Barman at Duke’s Hotel, the bar where Ian Fleming reputedly came up with his classic “shaken not stirred” line for his hero James Bond.
Over the years he has made the martini his own signature drink, and developed a style of preparation that’s quite unique. When guests ask whether he shakes or stirs his martinis his reply is as dry, and smooth, as his version of the classic cocktail. “James Bond, he has a licence to kill, but not a licence to make martini. I no shake, I no stir.”
Whilst he will prepare vodka martinis he much prefers to use gin, Tanqueray being his favourite. The bottle is stored in the freezer, as are the glasses, and this is crucial – he uses no ice, because this would dilute the effect. His martinis are more potent because they are not watered down!
Preparation takes place directly in front of the guests (in the glass rather than in a shaker) and is a piece of spellbinding theatre. He places a small table beside them, and then lays out everything he needs. Then he takes a tiny bottle of vermouth and shakes a couple of drops into the bottom of each glass. Next he pours in the icy cold gin, until it bulges over the top of the glass, defying gravity. Immediately one asks oneself “How am I going to get that onto the table in front of me, without spilling it?”
He then takes a slice of fresh peel from a Sicilian lemon – he buys them fresh, every day, from an Italian delicatessen, insisting that nothing but the best Sicilian lemons will suffice. He then cracks the surface of the lemon zest with a dramatic flourish, before running it around the outside rim of the glass to impart a subtle tang of lemon. He then drapes the cracked zest over the rim of the glass, before lifting it and placing it before you in one swift motion. Not a drop is spilt, leaving onlookers gasping in amazement!
Because you lack his confidence, and steady hand, you have to take your first sip without raising the glass to your lips – and the effect is unforgettably powerful. The flavour of the lemon zest hits your taste beds a millisecond before the freezing gin, creating an explosive taste sensation. As Antonio is fond of saying himself “two is not enough and three is too many”.
To accompany your martini Antonio provides little bowls of mixed olives, some stuffed with chilli and some with anchovy. There’s also a selection of nuts to nibble, and little fingers of warm cheese on toast. Each of these, with their strong individual flavours, perfectly complements the martini, so it’s a magic combination.
Half way down the first glass and your tongue is loosened – so Antonio confesses that part of his job is being a good listener. “I have a few loyal regulars, who come in four or five times a week. Sometimes we stay up until two or three in the morning, talking. I don’t just mix the drinks, I am their friend.”
Small wonder, then, that those in the know swear these are the best martinis in London. But they only tell their very closest friends – it’s a secret few are eager to share! Listen to Antonio’s podcast