WAS Friedrich Engels partial to a drop of Grappa? Perhaps Garibaldi, after liberating Italy, sent the co-creator of the Communist Manifesto a flagon or two of the national firewater to celebrate. Allow us a little lighthearted whimsy as we gaze out on the new (trucked in by MIF) Engels statue in Tony Wilson Square with a tumbler of Mezzoemezzo in hand.
We are in the Bassano Bar, a smart pop-up occupying the covered terrace of the First Street Pizza Express. Its cocktail list is centred on the Nardini grappa brand from Italy’s oldest distillery (pre-dating Herr Engels by decades) and the perfect aperitivo there has to be the Nardini Mezzoemezzo (£6), Italy’s favourite cocktail.
It has been served in the Grapperia on the Ponte Vecchio in the northern Italian town of Bassano del Grappa (below) for decades. It mixes Nardini’s bittersweet rosso liqueur with soda, Americano style, complete with a twist of lemon. It’s lovely.
Self-styled ‘Drinks Enthusiast’ Dave Marsland is a big fan. When Pizza Express asked the Manchester-based, nationally renowned cocktail expert and brand ambassador, if he’d like to open the bar he jumped at the chance. And he’s doing it his way, promoting his enthusiasm for grappa, the national spirit made by distilling the pomace (skins, pulp, seeds, and stems) left over from winemaking after pressing the grapes.
Nardini have perfected the process, helped by a base from high quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, blended with white varietals such as Pinot Bianco and Friulano. The pomace is delivered within 24 hours of vinification and stored in the distillery in total absence of air and without added yeasts.
Dave’s Grappafest on First Street exploits the spirit in classics such as Negroni. In the interests or research we tackled two – the gentle Manchester Negroni (£7), which combines the city’s own Three Rivers gin with Campari and Mezzoemezzo and the revelatory rum-based Spiced Negroni (£7). This is an exotic mix of the heavenly Chairman’s Reserve Spiced from St Lucia with Campari and Velvet Falernum, a spiced-citrussy sweet liqueur from the Caribbean.
A further nod to Manchester is the Hacienda Sour, which combines Three Rivers with fresh lemon, sugar and egg white, topped with a cherry garnish. Check out the full cocktail list here.
This Bassano bar is modelled on the success of a London one, opened with business partner and Nardini importer Nick Hopewell-Smith in Hoxton last summer. The First Street offering is open at least until September – and, who knows, after that it might be rolled out across other Pizza Expresses.
Oh yes, and you can order a Margherita or Sloppy Giuseppe from the pizzeria proper to nibble with your very Italian cocktails.
The Bassano Bar @ Pizza Express. 1 First St, Manchester M15 4FN. Open Wed-Fri 5pm-11pm, Sat 12pm-11pm, Sun 12pm-10pm.Raffles Drinks Emporium.