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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Liquid City

The Warmth of Friendship

June 21, 1998|CHRIS RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's more than just another massive bowl of liquor, like some of those wild, flower-topped concoctions served at houses of exotic libations.

La Grolla at Locanda del Lago, on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, may well be exotic, but it's also authentic, said owner West Hooker, who hails from the Lombardy region of Italy. Served in hand-carved wood bowls that at first glance resemble Chinese Yixing teapots, this soul-warming drink combines espresso, Italian brandy, grappa and sambuca with sugar, cloves and lemon peel in a potent yet surprisingly smooth communal cocktail. The drink is mixed at the bar, heated to near boiling in the kitchen and then served flambe tableside.

Two thirtysomething couples, regulars at this restaurant, shared the four-spout La Grolla (Hooker also has bowls with seven and 10 spouts) on a recent rainy night over dessert, passing the drink clockwise around the table, a circle it made half a dozen times before it was empty. "You rely on the alcohol to kill the germs," joked Andrew Hunter, as he struggled to remember which was his spout.

Locanda has only served the drink, nicknamed Caffe El Nin~o, for about six months. It's most popular on cool nights, when as many as half a dozen tables order one at $9 per person.

The grolla is a centuries-old tradition in the Alpine region of Italy, Hooker says, and one with a double purpose. As the multi-spouted bowl is passed around the table, the friends who share the steaming-hot beverage will not only get warm but also cement their friendships for life--as long as they completely empty the vessel.

"I've had it three times, and I'm still friends with everyone I've shared it with," said Leanne Hill. "So far, so good," she said as her companion, Peter Quelch, emptied the grolla, tipping his head back to drain the last drops.

The four friends had first sipped La Grolla a few months ago as part of a group of 10 celebrating a birthday, and liked it so much they borrowed one of the gourd-like bowls from Hooker for use at home. They knew what to mix in, more or less, but they couldn't quite get it right, so they had to come back to Locanda for more.

"I give out the ingredients," Hooker says with a smile, but not the amounts.

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