Before Vincenzo Marianella, the cocktail scene in Los Angeles, compared with London and New York, was a sticky wasteland of sweet-and-sour mix, triple sec and bottled lime juice. Then a 6-foot-4 Italian guy from a tiny town in Italy called Tolmezzo stepped behind the bar at Providence in 2005, started using fresh citrus and changed everything.
After playing professional basketball in Italy, Marianella worked at bars in Australia and New York City, then fell in love with cocktails in London, which he calls the greatest cocktail city in the world.
"I was working my butt off [bartending at Smollensky's], and the few pounds I could save I would be at the Lab drinking cocktails," said Marianella, who says he drank his way through the London bar's extensive cocktail list more than once.
In Los Angeles, he went from a limited drink menu at Providence to creating more than 100 cocktails at the Doheny (now Caña Rum Bar). He opened Copa d'Oro in Santa Monica— where you'll find him most nights — in 2006 and started his own consulting business, MyMixology (he named it to make fun of the word "mixology" and the website MySpace), with partner Zahra Bates.
He'll make a Manhattan with Rittenhouse 25-year-old rye whiskey and put Laphroaig 18-year-old single-malt Scotch in a cocktail, but he doesn't frown on the rounds of shots and vodka Red Bulls he serves nightly.
"I take the same pride making molecular cocktails as I do pouring a glass of water," Marianella said. "I'm not in the bar industry; I'm in the hospitality industry."
When he's not behind the bar, he's cruising around on his Yamaha Super Ténéré (he doesn't own a car), taking weeks off at a time to visit distilleries around the country on his bike, riding through Sinaloa in Mexico in search of tequila. He also trains three hours a day at the Krav Maga Worldwide center.
He had a mustache and a goatee before it was cool, doesn't have any tattoos — and prefers a belt to suspenders when it comes to keeping his pants up.
On a recent trip to Santa Monica's Saturday farmers market, Marianella looks like he's just hopped off a Vespa and walked straight through an Italian sunset. He's wearing a tight navy polo shirt, dark jeans, a thick black leather belt, loafers and sunglasses as he sits on a bench between Copa d'Oro, which he co-owns, and the new Independence Tavern, where he runs the bar program. There's a reusable grocery bag sticking out of his back pocket. His salt-and-pepper hair is neatly trimmed to frame his face, and he speaks with a deep, heady Italian accent.
Today's trip involves a short but important grocery list: 13 blood oranges, four bushels of cilantro, six glass jars of Whole Foods brand pomegranate juice. Yes, he shops at Whole Foods. With 2,500 people headed to Copa and Independence each week, he's moved most of his shopping to local large-scale suppliers, but he continues to go to the farmers market for a little shopping and inspiration.
Before starting his shift at Copa d'Oro, around 5:30 p.m., he stops into the Independence for lunch — typically a mixing bowl-sized salad with grains. "Then we rock the whole night," Marianella said. He'll stay behind the bar until around 3 a.m. Then he'll wake up, get on his motorcycle and do it all over again.