The tradition of aperitivo in Italy is definitely one of our favourite rituals. Late dining, no earlier than 8, is the custom in Italy so to bridge the gap of never ending hunger, aperitivo before dinner in the early evening is exactly what’s needed.
Usually, your preferred café will also have a well-stocked bar that will pump out glasses of prosecco, Aperol spritz and glasses of wine along with refashioned pieces of panini left over from lunch arranged as a buffet for free grazing.
In some establishments, a more elaborate buffet may be presented and available for a fee including a drink or with a minimum drink order. For travelers on a budget aperitivo can take the place of dinner and can also lay the base for a good night of drinking, I have heard.
Smile Tree Cocktail Bar
After a 2 and a half hour train ride and hauling our bags across town to our sweet little apartment in Turin, we were tired and hungry with nothing in the fridge. A friend in Bologna had recommended a list of bars to check out during our visit and quickly scanning the list we realized that one was 50 feet across the square. So a quick decision was made and before we could get cold again we stepped inside Smile Tree Cocktail Bar.
Funky and eclectic
A funky and eclectic interior was complemented by a great soundtrack. Our server, Alice, settled us in at a table and presented us with a drink menu. Opening the menu I immediately realized this was no ordinary aperitivo bar with each page beautifully illustrated with full-colour pictures of each, very elaborate, cocktail.
The prices also reflected the level at which these drinks were playing, at €13 average a piece. Looking at Nat I wondered whether we were in over our heads because we were thinking more along the lines of a spritz and bowl of chips for €4 but we decided to go for it and we are glad we did.
Closing the menu we told our friendly server that we did not expect such fancy drinks and were looking for something a little more modest. She asked our preferences and then assured us they could create something we would enjoy. Still a little nervous we were overpaying for a cocktail, we waited patiently for her to finally return carrying what looked to be some kind of a tray.
Alcoholic Broadway show
Placing it in front of Nat, I realized it was her drink but this wasn’t just some glass on a napkin, this was an alcoholic Broadway show. Slowly pouring water from a pitcher through the grate her drink sat on, a waft of fog crept across the table from the dry ice hidden below. Small dishes of coconut and plantain chips along with a sample of house made rubber chocolate surrounded her drink, floating in the fog. The glass itself was enormous, in it, Smile Tree’s incarnation of an Aperol spritz with no spritz just liquor.
Alice returned again with my drink which was inspired by my suggestion of a white negroni. In the glass, Alice explained, was a huge chiseled block of perfectly clear slow ice. Devoid of any oxygen the ice cube would melt very slowly not diluting my drink while looking like a chunk of clear crystal in the glass.
Garnishing my drink tray were small bowls of smoky walnuts, dry roasted corn, goji and blueberries and more of that house made chocolate. Each drink was sublime in its creation and presentation wild enough to turn the heads of all the other patrons.
More like a meal
Wondering whether our tiny garnishing bowls, along with a tray of tasty warm focaccia bites, was going to be the extent of the food, Alice arrived again. This time bringing us two tasting boards of food.
More like a meal than aperitivo, the food end of our experience was a hot sampling of tasty vegan dishes. Penne in pumpkin sauce, hummus crostini, vegan polpete and caponata. This was aperitivo taken to a whole new and fun level and we were loving it.
Finishing up I decided I had to go to the bar and meet the mind behind the drinks to ask a few questions. Maurizio gladly shook my hand and after explaining to him our mission of discovering new and exciting food and drink threw open his bar and his passion. With endless choices of booze to mix they did not stop there, creating many of their own flavoured alcohol and mixes which we sampled including an umami liqueur that tied our tongues in knots.
Garnish and plating
Garnish and plating were also a huge part of their philosophy to make a cocktail part of a meal or a course within a meal. Amazing and unique vessels were employed as glasses, tools to create spherical slow ice balls, smoking guns, herbs, fruit even hay. Maurizio was inspiring in his passion and obviously loved his job.
Soon we were fast and hard friends sharing our culinary/mixology exuberance along with Alice and Maurizio. Seeing that excitement, Maurizio offered to blow our minds by making us one more drink. As he lined the bottles up on the counter he listed off the ingredients; garlic & horseradish Polugar, tomato gin, housemade chili-infused tequila and then he went to work. The results were truly something to behold let alone drink, luckily Nat was quick to capture the show.
Fogged with the horseradish essence and flavoured like some kind of Osso Buco inspired Italian fantasy it had notes of tomato, garlic and orange with a presentation that was fantastically unique.
At the top of his craft
This was definitely a young man at the top of his craft brimming with ideas and excitement and it left me feeling the same inspired by his enthusiasm. Finally, it was time to say buonasera and head out but we vowed to be back to see what else they could impress us with.
Two days later
Two days later we kept our word but this time stayed at the bar to watch the action and discuss food and drink philosophy with Maurizio and Alice who were joined by Carlotta behind the bar. Carlotta’s talent, definitely on par with her work mate, wasted no time in pouring samples of life changing vermouth while she created gorgeous cocktails with artistic flare for other patrons.
She asked whether she could put together a drink for us its flavours rested on white truffle honey and bourbon, uh ok! Nat was at the ready again with her camera to capture the spectacle that tasted as exotic as the plating.
To see this kind of interest and passion played out by young cooks or bartenders has always motivated me to push my own skills and knowledge.
Best cocktail bar
Unfortunately, these attitudes can be few and far between but at Smile Tree they are alive and well. As proof, Smile Tree was recently awarded best cocktail bar in Piedmont by Gambero Rosso, an accolade well deserved. One of the most fun nights of drinking in my life that will not soon be forgotten, such a great tale from the table.