Italy values tradition perhaps more than any other country in the western world. Fair enough, it must be difficult to want to reinvent the wheel if your culture was responsible for gelato, lasagna, and the Jacuzzi, but when there’s such an emphasis on doing things the ‘right way’ it can come at the cost of progress. However, the times they are a-changing – for years Italian bartenders have shaped cocktail culture all over the world, and now some are returning home.
The result is a bar such as Cinquanta – Spirito Italiano, a modern interpretation of the traditional Italian bar created by chef-turned-bartender Natale Palmieri and former Dandelyan host Alfonso Califano in their hometown of Pagani, about an hour south of Naples and a stone’s throw from the Amalfi Coast.
“Our generation is looking at the past with different eyes,” explains Califano. “My grandmother never took a plane. My father never went abroad. I’ve been influenced by what I’ve seen in New York, London, Hong Kong, Fortaleza, so my point of view of Italian tradition is from someone who has seen the world.
“It’s strange. tradition is very important for us in Italy, especially when it comes to food and drink. Italians run some of the best bars in the world in London, Hong Kong, Singapore and New York, but no one is doing it in the same way at home outside of maybe Milan. The rest of the world celebrates Italian drinks and Italian hospitality but we’re not doing it in Italy. I thought, who is going to bring that to Pagani if not me?”
Califano’s not wrong. He grew up down the road from where he opened the bar and has been working in bars in town since he was a boy.
“I started working in a bar when I was 12 years old. I would bring the coffees to guests in the bar downstairs from my house, just 500m from where Cinquanta is. The regulars would come in every day and tell me about their lives, if they were going on holiday, what was happening with their kids, and it made me so curious about the lives of each individual, I loved it and I knew then that I would work in a bar for all my life.
“The Italian architect Renzo Piano said that every 18-year-old needs to leave Italy to appreciate what we have, to learn what clever people are doing around the world, and to come back and bring something to the community. I ran away from Pagani because it felt too small and restrictive for me, too old and traditional, but I realized that if it wasn’t someone like me, no one would do something for this community. I felt a sense of responsibility to make something.”
Cinquanta is that bar that made Califano fall in love with hospitality brought into the modern cocktail landscape. An ode to the bars of the Italian golden age, Cinquanta refers to the 1950s when the notion of Italian drinking culture was born.
“Italian bars are a specific kind of hospitality. The English have pubs, the Spanish have bodegas, the Dutch have coffee shops, Italians have the Italian bar. A place that’s open for coffee and pastries in the morning, then aperitivo, something quick for lunch, more aperitivo, and after dinner have amari and vermouth.
“That kind of establishment had its golden era after the Second World War when there was an economic boom in Italy. We had to restore the country and it was then that industrial design started – Fiat got big, the Vespa became famous, and the dolce vita was beginning in Rome.
“It was probably the most significant point in Italian history over the last couple of centuries and the bar became a focal point. People had more money to spend, women were working for the first time so they had money too, so they would have their breakfast out of the house. My father was born in 1955 and when he was growing up, there was one TV in the neighbourhood, and it was in the bar. He would watch sports there every Sunday with the rest of the community, it was where he watched the moon landing. I grew up in a bar like that. If I needed to go somewhere, I would go to the bar and someone would give me a lift. It was a tribe.
“That’s the feeling we want to create. A modern version of that 1950s bar. It’s in the architecture, the style of service, the style of hospitality – we want to know our guests, to create relationships and community.”
It’s why Cinquanta opens every day at 7am for parents on the school run, stays open all day with a full kitchen and bar service and doesn’t close until 2am. But communities have changed since the ’50s. Now that everyone has a computer in their pocket, having a television in a public space isn’t such a draw. Cinquanta must modernise that traditional format to make it make sense to a new generation.
“It comes down to service. People still want to have fun, they don’t want to have to think about problems they might have in other areas of their life, so we have to provide a space for that,” says Califano. “It’s why we have live music four nights a week, it brings the community together for something they can’t get elsewhere.
“We need to remember we’re not in the business of food and drinks, we are in the business of human relationships – that’s Cinquanta.”