Bartenders spend most of their time, well, tending to you. They make you drinks, make you laugh and convince you that your drunken babble is nothing short of genius. Or at least the good ones do. In the Bartenders Bible series, we let the folks manning the speedrails and taps around town have their say. This week, we hear from the the dapper Frankie Rotonta, who puts in three nights a week at Bella Vista steakhouse The Saloon, where he’s been mixing cocktails and building rapport with his clientele for 30 of the restaurant’s 43 years. Frankie tells us how he deals with customers who’ve had a few too many, traces the cocktail trajectory from pink squirrels to vermouth-less martinis and reveals that there’s never been a bar fight on his watch at The Saloon.
Name: Frankie Rotonta
Coordinates: Monday, Wednesday and Saturday nights at The Saloon, 750 South 7th St.
Bartender or mixologist? I call myself the bartender. I tend the bar!
Tenure at The Saloon? Over 30 years.
Total years behind the bar: Over 30 years.
Have you tended bar anywhere else? No.
How old are you? You can put down 62.
How is the business different today than 30 years ago?
The clientele changed a lot. The drinks changed! When we first started we served a lot of frozen drinks - strawberry daiquiris, pina coladas - and brandy Alexanders, pink squirrels, pink ladies. Now it’s mainly a lot of martinis. You got a lot of French martinis, a lot of cosmos. We have special martinis that we make and so forth. We have some signature martinis.
How was the clientele changed?
We used to have steady clientele before - the same clientele - we’ve been in business for 43 years - but what happens is the clientele ages with the business, they may go off, move away and so forth. We still have a few steady clients, but not as many. It’s hard to pinpoint really, but the clientele really changed. Not for the worse, though! It’s the same, but it’s different.
One unexpected fact about Frankie:
There’s probably a lot of things! Everyone has that secret side of them. I like to cook - I gotta use the adjective dilettante. I just dabble in it. Also carpentry work. I stopped, but I used to make furniture. I stopped because of the time factor and it gets very expensive, too.
I have a day job. You really want to know what it is? Okay, I’m a director of safety and security at St. Agnes Continuing Care Center and Hospital. I’m a certified health care safety professional. I took this job [at the Saloon] when my wife got pregnant with my son - she had to stop working - cause I got three kids. I actually grew up around this neighborhood and from then on… I like the job so much. What I like about the job is you actually get to meet people. The other job is totally different - you maintain compliance with state laws and the joint commission and so forth. Lot of regulations, fire drills, life safety. This is more of a social thing.
Favorite beer: Stella.
Favorite liquor: I’m not a drinker, but I would have to say it would be a vodka. Grey Goose. You can doctor it up because it really has no taste! Hahahahaha!
Favorite cocktail: Bloody Mary. I make it from scratch.
Your best customer in five words or less. Consideration. Enjoying the moment. Smiles.
Your worst customer five words or less. Someone that really doesn’t know what they want. Someone who orders a drink they’ve never tasted before, they don’t like it and they say “Naaah.” Someone who’s arrogant, condescending.
All bartenders should know a good joke. What’s yours?
You want to hear a good joke? Okay. I’ll tell you a joke.
Little Dominic goes to confession. He walks into the confessional booth and he says, “Father, I have sinned. I don’t know how to say this, I did this thing with this girl.” The priest says, “Is that you, Dominic?” and he says, “Yeah, Father.” The priest says, “Dominic, was it Nancy Scarpa?” and Dominic says, “Please Father, I don’t want to mention no names.” The priest says, “Dominic, was it Anna Marie Calabro?” and Dominic says, “Please Father, I don’t want to mention no names.” Then the priest says, “Dominic, was it Sally Capacollo?” and Dominic says, “Father, I can’t mention it!” So the priest says, “Okay Dominic, for your penance, say five Hail Mary’s, five Our Fathers. I’m going to suspend you from being the altar boy for two weeks. Your sins are forgiven.”
So Dominic goes out of the confessional and his friend Vinny runs up to him and says, “Dominic, how did you make out?” and Dominic says, “Hey Vinny, I didn’t do too bad. I got three leads and two weeks vacation!”
Have you ever had to break up a fight at your bar? What was it about?
Yeah, between two waitresses! Hahahahahaahah - no! No. No no, we’re not type of that environment. We don’t get that type of clientele.
You’re the first bartender I’ve interviewed who’s said that.
Ha! No. No, no, no.
It’s okay to sleep with customers. Yes or no?
I say no. Somewhere along the line it’s going to affect the business.
The best tip you ever got?
Aaahhhhh! It was money. $300. I’m not going to say who it was, but they must have really enjoyed my company. It was a couple of guys from New York City, I’ll just say that. They came in and they must have had a good day and they took care of me.
Here’s another. The Atlanta Braves were in town playing the Phillies. It was a Saturday night and three of their managers came in to have dinner at the bar. They invited me and my family to the game the next day - sat us right in front, right in back of the dugout and it was really nice. It was a great tip!
Do you get a lot of celebrities like that in here?
Oh yeah. Billy Joel, Christie Brinkley. Tony Bennett was here. Grace Kelly, when she was alive, she used to come in with her family and Prince Rainier. Peter Falk used to come in a lot. Joe DiMaggio. A lot of baseball players. A lot of local politicians. Frankie DiCicco, Ron Donatucci and so forth.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen at your bar?
A derelict coming in and sitting at my bar. I would say that’s the worst. Well, the worst thing I guess is when a couple starts kissing and getting a little bit too comfortable. Especially late at night. It’s like, whoa, give me a break, you know?
Oh, I’ve got one worse. One guy was drinking and started cursing. Started throwing the F word around. It got to a point where I had to tell him to stop it. He continued to do it where we actually had to drag him out.
What’s your patented drunk-handling technique?
If it gets to a point - I gotta stop serving them. I sort of apprise them at the beginning. I take the initiative and tell them “you gotta slow down, you gotta stop. Would you care for something else, something lighter, maybe a soda or something like that?” Right up front. Not to embarrass them, I try to be cool about it and hope they’re cool with it, too. Because if it gets to a certain point, I’m going to have to stop serving them. A low-key approach works.
Give us one of your bartending tips-of-the-trade:
Always shake a martini. One thing I do, whenever somebody orders a martini, I never use vermouth. The reason why is I can always put vermouth into the drink, but I can’t take vermouth out of it! Americans, when they ask for a Grey Goose martini straight up, they want Grey Goose straight up, okay? That’s the way I make it. Sometimes the olive juice gives it more flavor, to substitute for the vermouth. All these years I never got a complaint. Americans are so used to drinking their martinis with no vermouth.
Why should people get a drink from you rather than the bartender down the block?
One thing is, the drink is good! It’s a better drink. Number two is the fact that they like my company! The rapport I create with people and so forth. I make people feel comfortable. People enjoy eating at the bar. I like getting the whole bar where they all start talking to each other. So instead of them being alone, they develop a conversation. I try to get everybody involved in the conversation. If we’re talking about something and there’s someone else there, I say, “What do you think about this?”
The Saloon has a good reputation. When you’re a business and you exist for 43 years in this industry, that’s saying a lot. A lot of restaurants don’t make it through six months.
Where do you like to go for a drink when you’re on the other side of the bar?
I live over in South Jersey. I don’t go out that often, especially working in the bar. Filomena’s, that’s in Deptford. They have a nice bar and good entertainment.
What’s the secret to being a great bartender?
A great personality, number one. Number two is really enjoying being around people. Liking people, being very gregarious. And being comfortable with yourself.
Know a bartender who should be part of the Bartenders Bible? Tips gladly accepted here.