Madame Barfly: A Hard Shake, there’s a new bar jockey in Amherst

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Sitting down at Osteria Vespa’s bar for the first time, I’m surprised to find there’s no cocktail list. Josh Draghe, the soft-spoken, knowledgeable, and impeccably polite head bartender directs my gaze to a nearby board where staffers have handwritten signature cocktails in multi-colored chalk.

The board offers little detail, but there’s no need for written information with Draghe around. He rattles off the cocktails’ ingredients and prep details for several minutes — not yet knowing he’s dealing with Madame Barfly — before I decide I want the first one on his list.

The Finocchio Fresca is my first taste of Vespa and it’s like running through an overgrown field just before dusk.

“It tastes like summer,” says a woman next to me who’s ordered the same.

It has Tito’s vodka with just the right amount of bitter fennel — flavor gleaned from a house-made fennel syrup — which plays against freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice.

Draghe’s the man behind the menu. The longtime bartender says Vespa is his first opportunity to get this creative behind the bar, as he’s worked at clubs and sports bars before. Relishing the opportunity, he leaves work late in the evening thinking about the drinks he’s just made or wants to make — so much so, he says, that many cocktail ideas come to him in his dreams.

He says he’d never tried fennel in a cocktail before, but owner Jon Welch brought it in from his farmstand, M&M Green Valley Produce of Deerfield, for the kitchen, piquing Draghe’s interest. Draghe says he tried it and thought it would go well with citrus.

Only six months in, Vespa is still finding itself. The space beside Amherst Cinema has had its run of tough luck. The food, prepared by former Farm Table and Blue Heron chef Tom Schnapp, is solid and the cocktails are unexpectedly good, but the bar wasn’t intended to have any cocktail focus, concedes owner Jon Welch.

“It just started out as wine just because it’s Italian,” says Welch. “But it’s evolved to specialty drinks that people seem to love.”

The cocktail craze is new for Welch, who owned restaurants in California before returning to New England eight years ago. For all things cocktails, Welch defers to Draghe. He says he’s happy to have Josh’s creativity and passion. “I’m just a maestro,” Welch says, seated at the corner of the bar by the door, chatting up happy customers as they come and go.

Draghe says he takes cues from the kitchen, as much as possible keeping things seasonal and from-scratch.

The menu’s Lemon Thyme Iced Tea stemmed from lemon thyme from the farmstand. Draghe says he tried it and felt inspired to muddle it with some peach blossom tea from Esselon and some Bulleit Bourbon. Draghe left the tea unsweetened so the resulting cocktail tastes healthy and delicious. He says some like their tea sweetened, however, and it’s easy to hit it with a little simple syrup on request.

The Watermelon Mint Cooler may not quite jive with the Italian fare, but it’s worth trying. Draghe says Welch’s farmstand was overflowing with watermelon’s so he decided to put them to good use. For the Cooler he purees watermelon and shakes it up with some coconut rum, a house-made mint syrup, some freshly squeezed lemon and a splash of seltzer. Tastes like a watermelon-coconut Popsicle.

Draghe’s house infusions are, so far, all simple syrups. “Simples are good for extracting herbs and plants,” Draghe says.

He says he’d like to do some alcohol infusions, but they haven’t yet had the space or time to make it happen. He says the restaurant has been busy so he designed the menu with feasibility in mind.

“There’s no way you can have five-minute drinks in this environment,” Draghe says, referencing the prep time.

Draghe’s no-frills take on the bar is refreshing given Amherst’s carefully manicured ways. “Fresh and simple is usually the equation for good,” he says.•

Contact Amanda Drane at adrane@valleyadvocate.com

Amanda Drane

Author: Amanda Drane

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