Tappo Restaurant, known for its 40 bottles of wine for $15, or glasses for $5, may not come to mind when looking for a cocktail, but its carefully curated list is not to be missed.
Everything at Tappo feels deliberate, from the sparse, modern decor to the prominently-displayed wine bottles behind the bar. Its brief menu showcases red-sauce Italian standards, with a few nods to more continental fare. And for those of us who like a stiffer drink than a glass of grape, Tappo seems to have taken pains to selecting a few sippers to satisfy any palate.
There are just seven cocktails on the list at Tappo: one rum, four gins, one tequila and a rye. That’s more than enough to give every member of your party something to savor, whether waiting for a table or spending some time watching the snow blanket downtown Buffalo through the glass garage doors that front the place. The menu leans on lesser-known classics like the Last Word, the classic Daiquiri and the Vieux Carre, the latter of which is poured almost perfectly.
The Vieux Carre, a New Orleans-based standard named after the French Quarter, is a rye-based drink that, at Tappo, is made with cognac, Punt e Mes and Benedictine. It’s a strong drink, but with complex flavors that won’t knock you down as much as elevate your taste buds. That rye can carry a bite, but rich, umami Punt e Mes (similar to the standard vermouth, but with a smoother taste) mellows it out. Benedictine, an herbal French liqueur, adds a floral note and boosts the caramel sweetness of the cognac.
Our bartender rimmed the glass with the orange rind garnish, a nice touch that allows the citrus to whisper without overpowering subtler flavors. Most versions of the drink also include Angostura bitters, but the lack of bitter in Tappo’s version allowed the cognac’s natural sugar to come through without competition, a flavor I’ve missed in more traditional incarnations.
Tappo means “cork” in Italian, and although wine is clearly the focus, its bartenders have strong cocktail chops, too. The attentive men behind the pine checked on us early and often, pouring drinks with unhurried precision, despite a full spate of customers.
Tappo straddles the line between fine dining and casual comfort food, and its atmosphere is both inviting and classy enough to feel like a night on the town. And with its Ellicott Street location, the spot is positioned well for a holiday happy hour stop-out, for both downtown workers and those headed down main thoroughfares from further afield. Try Tappo’s cocktails for a selection of standards, made well enough to make them your new standard, too.
Vieux Carre, Tappo Restaurant; 338 Ellicott St., 259-8130; www.tappoitalian.com; cocktails $10.
Lizz Schumer is a Buffalo writer and editor who covers cocktails, food and whimsy for a variety of publications. She is the author of "Buffalo Steel" and can be found @eschumer or www.facebook.com/authorlizzschumer.