Italian food’s been done to death in Chicago, but Italian drinks are a different matter, says Rockit Ranch Productions partner and bartender Brandon Phillips. Rockit’s crew, including Kevin Hickey (The Duck Inn), are working hard at Otto Mezzo, 311 W. Chicago Ave., to ensure the new River North bar will open on April 26. It’s one of the season’s most-anticipated openings, located in the Martini Ranch/Ay Chiwowa space that carries a 4 a.m. liquor license.
While Hickey and Co. promise the food—and a late-night menu that will extend past midnight—will be top notch, Otto Mezzo is decidedly a bar, representing a number of Italian regions. Phillips wants to share his passion for Italian beverages and shine a light beyond amari and fernets. For example, while they’ll have Moretti beer—the popular Italian lager—they’ll also have variety of reserve and rotating brews. Phillips lamented how Eataly, Mario Batali and Joe Basianich’s super center for Italian food culture, only had one Italian beer on tap. Otto Mezzo boldly is running in the opposite direction from the hyperlocal leanings of craft beer drinkers in Chicago.
“We’re really doing a snapshot of the whole country,” Phillips said.
The drink list includes more than 90 bitters and a large variety of Italian brandy, including grappa, with more than 50. But the spirits alone aren’t the only thing to be excited about. Phillips will unveil unique cocktails including a Grazianeddu drink mixed with Myrtle berry, bitter honey, and Abbardente. These are ingredients found on Sardinia, the island west of mainland Italy. Phillips’ grandmother inspired the Chiampan, a carbonated red-wine cocktail derived from the Lambrusco. Rockit is also bringing in Phillips’ brother, Michael Taylor, to consult on the wine list. The sommelier has worked at Chicago restaurants including Salpicon and Eno Wine Bar.
This isn’t a place for a multi-course dinner, but guests will get chef-driven drinking food as they explore Italy through booze. The menu is packed with small bites including fried focaccia-breaded olives filled with burrata and wrapped in nduja.
Chicagoans may not be very familiar with Italian cocktails beyond the negroni, which is why staff training at Otto Mezzo is so important, says Phillips. The hope here is that an educated waitstaff will pass that passion on to the customers. Music is also important to the 65-seat space, and the playlist will include Italian jazz and hip hop.
“I think we’re offering something completely different than anything that’s been in the space before,” Phillips said. “It’s different from anything available in the city.” Check it out for yourself beginning April 26.