Little Italy Cocktail

Carlo Gambino's birthday

Your cocktail calendar entry for: August
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Here at The Drunkard’s Almanac the Little Italy cocktail is Drink of the Day because it’s Carlo Gambino’s birthday.  Gambino had a colorful mafia life and was part of the inspiration for the title role in The Godfather.  The crime family is still named after him even more than 40 years after his death.  That’s star power, so we’ll cover a bit of his history and the Little Italy cocktail recipe today.

The Carlo Gambino Story

Gambino was born in Palermo, Sicily.  He was part of the mafia there and entered the U.S. in 1921 as a stowaway on the SS Vincenzo Florio.  He joined his cousins, the Castellanos, in New York city and they all worked under Salvatore “Toto” D’Aquila.

That worked well until Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria ordered D’Aquila killed.  Gambino shifted his alliance to the Masseria gang, which then fought a four-year war with Salvatore Marazano.  Masseria and Maranzano were both dead by the time that was finished.  The modern incarnation of the American Mafia then formed through the creation of an agreed governing body, The Commission.

Gambino became a member of the group under Vincent Mangano, one of the five New York crime families under The Commission.  In 1951 Mangano was killed on the orders of his underboss, Albert Anastasia.  Gambino decided he couldn’t miss an opportunity so he arranged Anastasia’s murder and took control.  He expanded its operations, taking control of labor unions on the New York and New Jersey waterfronts, JFK airport, and the trucking, construction and garment industries along the East Coast.  This was profitable.

Gambino liked traditional rackets like loansharking, bookmaking, labor union control and extortion.  He was against drug trafficking despite its profit potential.  He worried about the long prison sentences which might provide reason for defendants to cooperate with authorities.  So he instituted the “deal and die” policy.  At least he was not ambiguous.

Gambino was savvy, and he was the most powerful Mafia don in the U.S. from the late 50s until his death from heart disease in 1976.  Unlike peers such as Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese, who ended their careers in exile, prison or shot to death, Gambino remained in control and untouched.  Despite all efforts of the FBI he was only in prison once, for 22 months during his younger days.

The Little Italy Cocktail

Nothing could be more appropriate for a New York mobster’s birthday than a cocktail developed in New York that uses an Italian carciofe, or artichoke, amaro.  Today we introduce the Little Italy cocktail, created by Audrey Saunders in 2005 at her newly opened Pegu Club, just a stone’s throw from Manhattan’s Little Italy.  It was one of the most important bars of the cocktail Renaissance.  Previously located right on Houston Street, it met its unfortunate demise in April 2020 with the COVID shutdowns in place.

Little Italy cocktail

Little Italy

A variation on the Manhattan cocktail, the Little Italy brings Cynar to the party.  Cynar (pronounced CHEE-nar) is an Italian amaro relying first on artichokes for flavor and then another 13 or so herbs.  It’s nominally a digestivo, something intended as an after-dinner medicinal drink, but finds use in several cocktails.  Cynar goes quite well here with rye and vermouth and is a recommended addition to your liquor cabinet. Cynar is available in two proofs, the traditional 33 proof and 70 proof. The latter was introduced a few years ago at the request of bartenders who wanted something a bit bolder for mixing. Either version will work here, but we highly recommend the 70 proof if it's available.
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  • Add ingredients to your trusty mixing glass.
  • Add ice and stir until frosty cold.
  • Strain into pre-chilled cocktail glass.
  • Skewer cherries and garnish.
  • Drink.
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  • I’ve been test driving Cynar. Just when I thought I crafted a cocktail I see it’s been done. Little Italys for everyone!

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