After a security meeting in Sproul Hall during which my pants began vibrating, I checked my cellphone for messages.
RETURNED LIGURIA STOP MEET
1820 FRIDAY MAZZINI STOP
Secret Agent 58 was back in town. Rumors among the former Carnegie Interns had placed him in Albania and Macedonia on business for Foggy Bottom.
I walked to this Italian restaurant through the human carnival that is Telegraph Avenue. While passing a shop specializing in vintage men’s accoutrement and magazines, his voice appeared beside me. "How are the Bears shaping up this season?"
"Cloudy with a chance of meatballs. You are reeking of cheap incense and yak butter candles. I thought you'd been posted to the Balkans, not the Himalayas. Did you just come from an insurgency planning committee meeting?"
"Let’s not discuss business." He furtively glanced around. "This street makes me sick: all this show of ferment, no desire for revolution."
We stepped into Trattoria Mazzini and took seats at the bar. The shelves were impressively stocked with the better examples of gin and vodka, and included a row of small pot grappas from Napa and Sonoma vineyards in fanciful hand-blown bottles. I was pleased to note that the drink card listed more classics than abominations. I chose one of my favorites, the Negroni; SA58 ordered a Lemon Drop.
"A shot? Have you seen a doctor about that?" I chided. "You must have caught some exotic disease from playing dominos on the Italian Riviera."
"Let’s not discuss business. Observe, his technique is indomitable."
The bartender was beating air into a puree of white peaches. The calm manner with which he held the copper bowl and spatula contrasted the speed at which his arm moved. He folded a measure of champagne into this frothy mixture, poured it into a tulip glass, and took it down the bar to an older gentleman. The older man took a cigarette case from his jacket and offered one to the bartender in a strange exchange of items and gestures. I noted that the silver cigarette case was etched with what seemed to be crossed blades. The Bellini he was served had an opalescence I have never been able to replicate.
The bartender took up the bottle of Campari and remarked that with the weather changing towards fall, it would soon be time to replace the Americano with the Negroni. He deftly mixed my drink and poured it into a cocktail glass. From an orange he peeled about a yard of rind, doubled, and tied it into a large bow, which he set carefully into the Negroni. Then he reached for a lemon, and with short pulls of the zester dropped five or six inch-long pieces of peel into a fresh mixing glass. Taking a belaying pin, he muddled this with a sugar cube, then added ice, citron vodka, and the juice of the lemon he had flayed. He ran a remnant of the lemon along the edge of a cocktail glass and rolled it in fine sugar, then strained out the Lemon Drop. He drew the zester around another lemon, and made a ring by reversing the curve of the peel and tucking it around itself.
The bartender brought the drinks to us, and SA58 paid with a single bill, telling him to keep the change. The bartender seemed non-plussed as he put a considerable amount of change in the tip jar and set the cigarette aside for later.
"What denomination was that bill? And why was it printed in blue ink?"
"Let’s not discuss business."
Lemon Drop (cocktail, Trattoria Mazzini Berkeley)
Place the sugar cube in a heavy mixing glass.
- a sugar cube
- lemon zest
- 1½ ounces citron vodka
- 3/4 ounce lemon juice
Over it, zest a length of lemon rind.
Muddle this, using the stick to grind the lemon peelings into the sugar cube.
Add crushed ice.
Pour over the citron vodka and lemon juice.
Strain into a cocktail glass with a sugared rim. (Use a tea sieve, there will be flecks of rind and undissolved sugar.)
Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.
As I have discussed on previous occasions, I do not favor sweet drinks. This one I find more palatable with half as much sugar; I either mix a double or carefully shave down a sugar cube. It is best when extremely cold, make sure you use crushed ice.
Paul Harrington, cocktail alchemist and historian, ascribes the Lemon Drop to the fern bars that prevailed in San Francisco in the early 70s. He suggests that this sweet-sour drink developed from substitutions upon the Daiquiri. I suspect that the Lemon Drop was a variation upon a vodka Gimlet, perhaps with a dash of Triple Sec for sweeter, more citrus flavor.
However, in the 80s, as vodka came to prominence in the alcohol market and trends in mixed drinks turned towards shooters, the memory of the Lemon Drop cocktail inspired that form of drink. Not unlike a tequila shooter, the Lemon Drop shooter was a lick of the hand, sprinkle of sugar, shot of citrus-flavored vodka, lemon wedge to chase. I tend not to drink shooters, as it is my opinion that that genre of drink does not, as a rule, encourage sociable conversation in the same manner as cocktails. But SA58, who has much less time to engage in such pleasantries, claims his Genovese mistress made Lemon Drops in the following manner:
Lemon Drop (shooter)
Sugar the rim of a shot glass.
Taking the bottles direct from the freezer, pour the Limoncello and vodka into the shot glass.
Add the simple syrup. Stir with a mixing rod.
Garnish with a candied lemon wedge or a lemon drop.
I find this version almost saccharine and a bit rough. I attribute both traits to the Limoncello. Even though the Italian government seems to have identified this liquor of macerated lemons as a tourist memory and a duty free export gift, I think it courts a hangover.
My personal recipe for the Lemon Drop requires the Meyer lemon. This small, smooth-skinned, sweet lemon is available in California right after the new year. It pairs perfectly with Hangar One Buddha's Hand Citron Vodka.
Lemon Drop (cocktail, Ouroboros)
Pour ingredients over crushed ice, and shake.
- 2 ounce Hangar One Buddha's Hand Citron Vodka
- ½ ounce juice from a Meyer lemon
Strain into a cocktail glass with a sugared rim.
Garnish with a lemon wheel dusted with ultra-fine sugar.
This version is more fragrant, less tart, less sweet than the Trattoria Mazzini version I list above. It remains quite drinkable even if allowed to warm.