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Roaming Rome, in a martini mood

Now the only problem is finding a good one, and once you get outside the U.S., it isn't as easy as one might think. What would Agent 007 do in this predicament?

November 01, 2009|Susan Spano

ROME — Mescolati, non agitati.

That's Italian for "stirred, not shaken," but to me it means a good martini is hard to find in Rome -- and in a lot of other places, for that matter.

I went looking for one on the last Sunday evening in August, the nadir of the year in Rome. It was stultifyingly hot even at 7 p.m., and everything was closed because Romans linger at the beach as long as they can before returning to town to face September.

On the Via Veneto, prime martini territory given its Fellini-esque "La Dolce Vita" connections, lobby bars in the grand hotels were shut tight, and maitre d's in oversized suits beckoned me into sad, empty sidewalk cafes.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, November 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Martinis: An article in Sunday's Travel section about finding a good martini abroad said that the Hotel Okura in Tokyo was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright designed the Imperial Hotel, which was built from 1915 to 1922. It was dismantled in 1967. The Okura was designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 08, 2009 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Martinis: An article last week about finding a good martini abroad incorrectly reported that the Hotel Okura in Tokyo was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright designed the Imperial Hotel, which was built from 1915 to 1922. It was dismantled in 1967. The Okura was designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi.

At the top of the hill near the Porta Pinciana, I chatted with an American couple in Harry's Bar. After touring Turkey, they were on their way home and decided to treat themselves to $20 martinis. The woman said hers was good, but I didn't stop. I'm not keen on touristy Harry's.

Instead, I ended up in the courtyard bar at the Hassler Hotel overlooking the Spanish Steps, where I got a passable martini, although it came with limp potato chips and was stirred, not shaken the way Agent 007 and I prefer.

I should have known better than to seek the elixir of the gods -- a dry martini, straight up -- in Rome. After all, I've ordered them from Chile to China with woefully inconsistent results. I am no advocate of globalization. But honestly, a martini ought to be a martini wherever you go.

Making a good one is, admittedly, a complicated business partly because of conflicting versions of the cocktail's provenance. Some say a bartender in Martinez, Calif., created it out of Old Tom gin for a gold prospector who wanted something better to drink than the usual rotgut. Others say the martini was invented around the same time at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco.

In any event, the drink was flavored with a beverage made of herb and spice-infused white wine, first marketed in 1863 by the Martini & Rossi Co.

Martini & Rossi dry vermouth remains essential to the cocktail, though so little of it should be used that one recipe calls for simply waving a bottle over the glass. The trouble is that misguided bartenders around the world often take vermouth to be the prime ingredient of a martini.

Imagine my horror, for instance, when I invited a friend for a drink at the Hotel Lenox on the Left Bank in Paris. The Art Deco bar there has the look of a place where they know how to make a dry martini. But what arrived on a silver tray were two clunky, undersized martini glasses that had not been chilled but had been filled with a lamentable mixture of vodka and Martini & Rossi dry vermouth in 1-to-1 measure, decorated -- if you can call it that -- with a small un-pitted olive.

My friend and I toasted and sipped, then recoiled in unison. Perhaps it's no surprise that the French don't understand martinis because they believe that hard-liquor cocktails blunt the taste buds for the more important meal that follows. I've heard, though, that you can get a top-notch version of the drink at luxury hotels such as the Crillon, Ritz and Henri IV in Paris.

So it goes around the world. If you want a good martini, you have to find the ritziest hotel in town, where international tastes are indulged. I seldom stay at such places, but I religiously stop in for a cocktail.

You pay dearly for the pleasure, of course, but martini connoisseurship gives travelers the chance to visit such storied places as the Gritti Palace in a 16th century Venetian palazzo, Winston Churchill's beloved Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Okura in Tokyo. And when you also get a good martini, you never forget it.

I well remember the one I had a few years ago at the glorious Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, possibly on the same bar stool as Graham Greene.

Before that, while holed up in the wretched New Delhi YMCA guest house to write a story, I routinely finished my day by wending my way to the oasis-like Imperial on Janpath for a fine martini, followed by delectable tandoori barbecue.

I loved drinking martinis elbow-to-elbow with politicos at the Willard InterContinental's Round Robin bar in Washington, D.C., and at the Hotel Astoria in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the bartender advised me to order my drink with creme-de-la-creme Russian Standard vodka.

A really good martini engenders reverie, which is why I was awfully pleased to get one this past August at the venerable Connaught Hotel near Grosvenor Square in the Mayfair district of London. The first-floor bar there now features sleek, sexy, retro-Cubist decor. The waiter came with a silver shaker and a big, chilled flute on a tray, poured my drink and left me in paradise to determine my future and that of the world.

Martini moments like that seem ever rarer. Others worry about climate change. I worry about the vanishing martini.

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