I've been recommending Il Bistro in the Market to everyone lately. Back in the fall, I met my bestie there on a whim, and we were like, "Damn, this place is sexy as hell." My dude and I went there for cocktails and cioppino soon thereafter, and she started bringing folks in, too, and, yeah, we’ve just been accidentally ending up there every week or three since.
Despite being very aware of the powerful cocktail pedigree that Il Bistro bears, as the spot where Murray Stenson kicked off the whole Prohibition-Era Cocktail Revival of the aughts (see also: the name of this column), I think I was just writing it off for years as a cornball tourist trap. In that location, actually embedded inside of the Gum Wall, how could it not be?
Wrong. It's not. This place is fuckin' great.
During my first visit in a decade, Il Bistro instantly reminded us of those sultry, underground bars in Mediterranean cities, where you drink way down in the cellar near the wine. Low, warm light and stone archways. Bottles everywhere, looking like a medieval wine crypt. You’re transported to Nicosia or Barça or Rome.
All the food is gorgeous as well—I haven’t eaten anything off Il Bistro’s menu that wasn’t a hit. It’s an historic, deceptively lovely place that Seattle locals shouldn't sleep on, as I dumbly did for so long.
That said, the romantic environs do feel a little overdetermined. The red roses in vases, the candles in tall jars, the menu loaded up with meat slabs and pasta heavyweights. This isn’t bad, it’s just kind of 1980s Italian American? It’s dated, but it’s selling. Clearly, as Il Bistro isn’t hurting for biz.
Anyway, what DOESN'T feel dated is Little Victories.
This drink fucks so hard. Okay. It’s just Cappelletti, Singani 63, and Cocchi Blanco that’s been infused with real strawberries, in-house. All wines here: two Italian aperitivos and a Bolivian brandy made from wine grapes, and it’s mostly composed of the latter.
If you shy away from fruit flavors in your cocktails, please make an exception for this one: it tastes like organic strawberries from your yard, not like a syrupy strawberry marg. The vermouth’s sweetness balances out the fruit, the spicy-mineral Singani 63 contributes to that balance, and the herbal-bitter Cappelletti soars slightly above all the light, rosy, berry, winey flavors present here. It’s served in a lowball over a big rock with a rose petal stuck to it, which is, mwah, amore.
“Right??” bartender Koa Ortiz chimes in. “It has everything—it’s sweet, it’s tart, it’s herbal, a little spicy. This drink’s got character!”
It’s helpful that this cocktail is so damn good because I’ve been looking for a reason to talk about Singani 63. This brandy is similar to pisco, but it has a peppery sharpness and a mineral bite with some high floral sweetness in there, too. Pisco but sweeter and more vegetal, and without that burnt aroma that pisco brings. Mountain meadow pisco. Singani 63 is marketed as being highly mixable, which is true, but it’s also good with just soda and lime, which lets the spicy notes ring through.
Based here in Seattle, Singani 63’s director of marketing, Sarah Soderbergh, has done a great job spreading the good word locally about the Bolivian booze. The county’s national spirit has a 500-year-old history, one that begins with Spanish missionaries living up in the mountains creating it from Muscat of Alexandria grapes grown in the Andes at a very specific altitude of 5,250 feet or higher.
Soderbergh’s famous filmmaker dad actually spent eight years wrapped up in governmental red tape trying to get Singani 63 available for export to the rest of the world after becoming infatuated with it while filming Che. He finally succeeded in 2022. Soderbergh, Jr. has been hustling in greater Seattle to spread the news, and we’re starting to see her work really pay off as Singani 63 sprouts up in bars all over town.
Cocchi Americano Blanco is a pretty common sweet vermouth from Italy, to which, Ortiz tells me, they add pizzazz by steeping fresh strawberries in it. I was kinda skeptical hearing this, as Cocchi Blanco is already honey-sweet and doesn’t need more sugar in the mix, but this strawberry-tinged vermouth totally works. It’s not cloying, as overly strawberry-flavored things often are, with a natural and wild sweet-and-sour strawberry flavor. It adds that incredible aroma of berries in a sunny field, too—just a hint.
Then! Interestingly! Cappelletti is an unassuming red aperitivo, the kind you’re used to seeing for all your life, and it tastes like a midpoint between Campari and Aperol—orangey, spice-forward, bittersweet. But its special secret is that it contains cochineal, also known as carmine. That’s beetle juice! It's a non-vegetarian aperitivo!
Made from female cochineal beetles that live on the prickly pear cactus, cochineal was once widely used in aperitivos—Campari got its signature hue from cochineal extract until 2006, and Aperol did until 2009. There are a few others that currently use it, e.g. Leopold Aperitivo and Bruto Americano.
If you’re veggie or just completely grossed out by this whole concept, then you can ask the bartender to swap out Cappelletti for a mix of beetle-free Ramazzotti and Aperol in your drink, and it’ll still be delicious, I promise.
Back at Il Bistro, no one at the bar had any idea which staff member invented Little Victories, sadly, and Ortiz intimated that it might actually fall off the menu soon, because they have a fresh cocktail list on deck. “You probably have a few weeks left on this one, though,” he reassured me. “And if it’s not in the cocktail book anymore, folks can always ask for it by name.”
So, yeah, I drink crunched-up bugs in wine now, and so do you. This is our new signature cocktail—I declare 2023 the summer of Little Victories. We’re going to have the sweetest strawberry summer, you guys. 🍓