Luca Cinalli is one of a wave of Italian bartenders making their mark on London. Nearly two years into being bar manager at Oriole bar, Cinalli met with MIXOLOGY to tell the story of how he went from fishing in a small Italian village to managing one of the most in-demand bars in the city.
Luca Cinalli is a man on an upward trajectory. The Italian bartender followed up five years at London’s awards darling Nightjar by joining the opening team at Oriole as bar manager. The subterranean speakeasy has taken London by storm and is approaching its second birthday – no signs of a sophomore slump here.
Luca Cinalli: From Fisherman’s Son to Bartender
It’s clear Luca Cinalli has always had a thing for hospitality. The son of a fisherman in a small Italian village, young Cinalli was tired of the rod, line, and hook and went off to catering school at a young age. He then did separate stints working in locations as varied as Switzerland, Sardinia, and Florence.
Eleven years ago, he moved to London. It was a natural move – both good for bartending and learning English. He was to join a great roster of Italian bartenders, including Agostino Perrone and Tony Conigliaro, who made their names in the capital. He originally started working with his brother on the floor service of a restaurant, but he felt more comfortable behind the bar. “I like to create something for guests,” Luca Cinalli says, smiling. He makes a point of mentioning his brothers: the three form an impressive hospitality trifecta – one sommelier, one chef, and one bartender. “It’s an auto-concern – we wanted to cover all the businesses,” chuckles Cinalli.
The club influence
The skills required in classic bars can also be learned in clubbier surroundings. Cinalli, after some time working in a variety of restaurants and clubs, worked at the city’s famous Mahiki, a Tiki-style club predominantly known as a destination for the city’s chic set, along with an assortment of the rich and famous. He explains that dealing with high volumes, as well as the intricacies of the setup and preparation, all helped him with his future work at Nightjar and Oriole.
Leaving Mahiki, Cinalli was looking to do something more classical – and lo and behold, he met Marian Beke at a seminar, which led to a job at Nightjar. Why does he think that the 1920s themed Nightjar was such a roaring success? “A mixture of the music program (Nightjar is known for its jazz and live music on Mondays), the drinks, and execution. And it was the first bar in which bartenders could express themselves, in which we created our own system of shopping, programming, and execution,” he explains.
From one bird to another
After five years, Cinalli was offered the chance to be bar manager at Oriole, a new venue being put together by the owners of Nightjar, Edmund Weil and Rosie Stimpson. The bar, which displays the pair’s fondness for bird names, is located under the city’s famous Smithfield Market and offers drinks split into three sections: New World, Old World, and the Orient. Oriole is all about exploration – from the luscious, exotic decor to the globally-influenced menu, packed with more idiosyncratic ingredients and combinations that you can imagine.
Alongside Weil and Stimpson, Cinalli made a breakdown of everything they did at Nightjar and started from scratch: “no copy and paste.” The first year was full of challenges – from figuring out the setup and the legal machinery, to technical things like buying the right freezers, fridges, and blenders – before things settled down.
Cinalli outlines a three-part daily schedule aimed at getting all staff Oriole-ready. “In the morning, someone comes in, empties the fridges, restocks the stations, and prepares basic materials, before a colleague comes to the station and pre-mixes some drinks – just the booze ones, like Manhattans, and never, for instance, punches, as you can’t play with freshness,” he explains. Later, a third staff member organizes the garnishes and the dry ingredients that are needed. This rotating system is a way of training everybody and making sure that junior bartenders, who first start with the morning shifts, are fully prepared to serve drinks later on.
The speakeasy glut
Having worked at Nightjar, perhaps the definitive speakeasy in London, and now Oriole, Cinalli has a lot of insight into the trend. Has it reached saturation point? “It’s done, but it will never die,” he says. “In this case, many have adopted a model, but not created a real speakeasy,” he explains. As for what Cinalli thinks will come next, he predicts a more pared-back approach. “The new trend is simplicity, with more bartenders becoming owners and not being so into trends and such,” he says. He expects bar owners to be more interested in the technical side of things and points out that customers are fed up of waiting for their drinks: “‘if you want quality, wait’ – that’s usually just an excuse.”
He has a surprising answer when asked about the bars in London he likes to frequent. “I love pubs,” he smiles. “It’s just like when a Michelin star chef needs a break from the kitchen. They’re more easygoing, and a beer is a great cocktail, both bittersweet and easy.” When it comes to mixed drinks, he loves a Pimms or a Tom Collins. “See, I do love it here in England!”
Away from the bar, but strongly tied it, Cinalli also loves to forage and enjoys gardening – describing himself as a self-productive man. He’s much more into the technical side of bartending than working with brands and PR. Accordingly, his advice for new bartenders is very simple: “to study and practice.”
New openings and potential exits
As always with interviewing those based in the UK, there’s a Brexit-sized elephant in the room. But Cinalli says he isn’t fazed by the looming exit. “Let’s wait and see. All issues have solutions, and I’m easily adaptable, so not much will change really wherever I move,” he says. And what are his ideas for his next steps? “I would love to open a restaurant or bakery, but that feels like a step towards ending my career,” he says with a smile.