Star City Sips, Drink 2: Hot Damn in a Barrel, at Fortunato

I’m going to let you in on a little secret:  I almost didn’t start my tour of best-loved cocktails in Roanoke… because I couldn’t get past two recommended drinks. (!!)

Ask any cocktail-loving Roanoker to name their top five sips, and you’ll likely get some maddening iteration of the following response (in no particular order):

One:  the Pineapple Martini at Frankie Rowland’s.

Two:  ((That drink I’m not going to tell you about yet because I still want to write about it.))

Three, Four & Etc.:  Fortunato.

Notice, people don’t say, “Oh, I love the Raspberry Smash at Fortunato,” or “Hands down, it’s the Black Manhattan at Fortunato.”  They just say the name of the restaurant — Fortunato — as if the *entire* cocktail menu was, in fact, good enough to fill the rest of their favorite slots.

And actually?  It might be.

But let’s back up a step.  Because before we get down to talking drinks, we need to talk about the restaurant as a whole.

If you haven’t made it over to Fortunato by now — which just celebrated its one-year anniversary — you really should.  Ever since it opened, I’ve been a bit of an obnoxious evangelist for the downtown restaurant’s just-right mix of high and low, Italian and American, hipster and classic.  This cozy spot on the corner of Kirk and First is just up the way from its first-born sister-restaurant, Lucky, but Fortunato feels both slicker and earthier, in a way that’s hard to describe.  While Lucky is French fusion with comfortable farm-to-table flair, Fortunato (that’s Italian for “lucky,” in case you didn’t catch it), is very much Italian, but with deep local roots and a citified twist.

She’s like your homegrown high-school sweetheart’s little sister … the one you didn’t notice until she came back from two semesters in Rome with a wild streak, an expensive Milanese moto jacket and a hand-chopped mohawk … which you find both disconcerting and … wickedly sexy.

But maybe that’s just me. 😉

Inside the restaurant, the dining room is bathed in ruddy light from the giant crimson lanterns above, which glints off gold wallpaper and the perfectly unpretentious jelly-jar wineglasses.  The high-ceilinged space is usually abuzz with echoing conversation, and packed wall-to-wall with diners feasting on anything from small plates to fancy black squid-ink tagliatelle to simple, melty house-made pizza.

All this feels very cosmopolitan … and also very local.

It’s the sort of place where you could show up wearing towering stilettos … or agri-chic overalls … or both.

The cocktail menu throws off basically the same vibe.

Fortunato shares some of its drinks-DNA with Lucky, but everything here is spoken with a slight Italian accent — these are American aperitivi, inviting the lingering three-hour cocktail sessions that Italians do best.  There’s an “Italian 75,” for starters — a lemony-sweet gin-and-Prosecco concoction that tastes like sunshine in Sorrento.  There’s also the “Dangerous Beauty” — a delicate and refreshing blend of gin, Cocchi Americano, lime, mint and orange bitters … which I can guarantee won’t get in the way of your dinner.

If you’re into bittersweet drinks, in keeping with the Italian custom, you’ll find a lot of amaro in the mix here, and all manner of things to suit your palate.  I’m a true Negroni girl at heart — especially after dinner — and this is absolutely the place to get one.

But the crowd favorite from this cocktail menu is most probably Hot Damn in a Barrel, a beverage that’s beautiful both as a novelty and as a genuinely good all-around drink.  The menu describes it as “Old Forester Bourbon, Ancho Reyes Ancho Liqueur, Cocchi Chinato Vermouth, Orange and Cherry Bitters.”

HDinaB provides a good glimpse into what this bar does best — drinks with complex, layered flavor profiles, where seemingly incongruent ingredients somehow meld into a state of sophistication.

Take a single sip and you get the expected top notes:  bourbon with a hint of sweetness.  The drink opens, at this point, much like any other good-quality bourbon-based cocktail.

But swallow, and you begin to understand what makes this one a little special.  The flavor blooms first into the best sort of bitterness — that’s the cherry and orange bitters doing their thing, like pink blossoms blown from the trees after the festival, sticking to slick black asphalt — and then, a moment or two later, there’s that slow-smoldering burn of the Ancho Reyes.

If, in your younger years, you drank a lot of Fireball — but not so much as to lose the taste for it completely — you might find your classier adult beverage right here, tempered by time and wisdom into something subtler and sexier … like the rediscovery of an old flame, with better clothes and better taste in beverages … and far more experience.

But really, you shouldn’t take my word for it.  Get down to Fortunato and sit at the bar, where you can watch these cocktail geniuses doing their thing.  Pick one drink … or three, if Roanoke has any say in it.  Just about anything on the menu is worthy of the title Star City Signature.

Cin cin, Slickers! Until next week!

–Ashley ❤

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Fortunato is located at 104 Kirk Avenue downtown.  Reservations are strongly recommended for dinner, which can be obtained on the restaurant’s website or by calling (540) 400-7315.

Dining with a friend who’d like to avoid alcohol?  When in Rome (or Northern Italy)… by all means, order an espresso.  You *are* in an Italian restaurant, after all — at least sort-of — and any coffee-based beverage here will come to the table piping hot and elegantly served, before dinner or after.

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