2016-11-03 20:40:14
Heads Up: Exploring the Speakeasies of Rome

Rome’s cobbled, snaking alleyways lend themselves to mystery, and today’s best places to raise a glass in the Eternal City are fittingly clandestine, with entrance gained by a knock, a phone call or a membership card.

At the back of a vintage-furnished trattoria near the Pantheon, stumble through a creaky armoire and you’re deposited in a dimly lit brick den, where an empty suit of knight’s armor spookily stands guard. This would be Club Derrière (Vicolo delle Coppelle 59; 39-393-566-1077), an atmospheric bar that revels in its air of mystery, and one of the many Roman speakeasies that are persuading locals to trade in their wineglasses for highballs in these cocktail-slinging spots.

At Club Derrière, bartenders in ties and vests serve a changing list of a dozen original cocktails from behind the glass-encased counter. This season’s opera-themed menu includes Le Nozze di Sigaro, a nod to “The Marriage of Figaro” composed of a cigar-infused rum tincture with chocolate and aged angostura bark bitters.

In Rome, cocktail culture is a fairly recent arrival. Italy is a country of wine and beer drinkers; just a decade or two ago, mixed drinks were the unique purview of hotel bars and nightclubs. Today, with about a dozen speakeasies, from dives to high-class boîtes, locals are warming to imported ideas about elaborate cocktail recipes and the charms of Prohibition-era misbehaving.

“It’s not so much that we’re inspired by Prohibition,” said Gian Paolo Di Pierro, the passionate bar manager at Club Derrière, who publishes drink manuals in his off time. “It’s more that we needed a way to create a separate reality where Italians would accept something different and learn to drink cocktails. We’ve created this place as a sort of parlor room to set a properly cultured tone,” he said, pointing to a stately, half-stocked bookcase that slides back to reveal a hidden bathroom. “A lot of our books get stolen, though,” he lamented.

Some of Rome’s speakeasies barely make an effort to disguise themselves. At Spirito (Via Fanfulla da Lodi 53; 39-327-298-3900; club-spirito.com), in the out of the way but animated neighborhood of Pigneto, the warm glow of the rooftop deck beckons street-level pedestrians, and the bar counter is visible through a peephole in the sandwich shop that fronts it.

Inside, cocktails are dispatched from a custom-made blackjack and roulette table, where gamblers can trade in winning chips for drinks mixed with Kaffir lime oil or bacon-infused whiskey. Entrance is gained by picking up the receiver of a vintage pay phone, as is the case at an upscale Testaccio hangout, the Corner. And why else would a pay phone be around these days?

Housed in a 19th-century villa, the Corner (Viale Aventino 121; 39-06-4559-7350; thecornerrome.com) is an 11-room boutique hotel, restaurant, bistro and British-inspired speakeasy paired with a terrace bar, where cocktails are served from a rainbow-colored stained-glass gazebo. It reopened last summer with Marco Martini, a young Michelin-starred chef, heading the new effort. His top-notch small plates are paired with gastronomically ambitious cocktails — toasted peanuts, popcorn-infused rye, and Italian touches like artichoke-infused gin and a fresh tomato Bloody Mary grace the drinks menu.

Other spots are truly Italian incarnations of the speakeasy’s rogue spirit, operating as social clubs to avoid the suffocating bureaucracy and taxes applied to ordinary bars, with a 5 euro ($5.50) membership card to get you in the door. Except for the godfather bar to the scene, the stiff-necked Jerry Thomas (Vicolo Cellini 30; 39-06-9684-5937; thejerrythomasproject.it), these speakeasies boast a rules-free approach to night life, where smoking is allowed, naturally, as are dogs, live music and tippling into the wee hours.

For a groomed aesthetic near the Colosseum, look for a striped barber’s pole and a tidy antique barbershop. The amiable and hirsute owner, Joy Napolitano, holds twice-monthly events there to trim beards and hair, but the nightly action is downstairs in the intimately appointed brick cellar of the (clippers-free) Barber Shop (Via Iside 2/4/6; 39-389-508-6037), a vaulted cavern with deep blue walls, wood paneling, cozy piles of Persian carpets and late night hours. “It’s a hidden bar, but with an open spirit — we make you good cocktails and you’re free to do whatever you want,” Mr. Napolitano said, stirring a fragrant drink tinged with patchouli and ylang ylang.

Close by in San Lorenzo, a working-class neighborhood with a youthful edge, a knock on the door at Blackmarket (Via dei Sardi 50; 39-346-948-2573; blackmarketartgallery.it) reveals a wood-beamed bar with a pitched roof and saloon vibe. On a breezy Thursday, a local rock band had just finished its set. It may have been late. It may have been morning already. But the newsboy-capped bartender poured another Manhattan, this one inflected with saffron, and the time — it hardly mattered in a place like this.