A Milan postcard picture always seems to feature the city’s iconic Duomo. But visitors have come to learn that, as the afternoon turns into evening, the only neighborhood to be seen in is Naviglio, 2 km south. Along the canals, score of bars cater to the aperitivo trade. One of the busiest, since it opened in 2011, is Mag Cafè. From this picturesque cocktail bar, Flavio Angiolillo — and business partner Marco Russo — has helped shape a renaissance in the Italian bar scene, building a small, booze-drenched empire on the way.
The hospitality industry has always been Flavio’s calling. Initially, the bar wasn’t. First, he worked in the kitchen and then moved to service. Schooled in France and in London at places run by chefs such as Alain Ducasse or Gordon Ramsay, he could very well have dedicated himself to fine dining. There was a frustration, though: « A chef creates but is not seen. A waiter is seen but does not create », Flavio now recalls matter-of-factly. « As a bartender, you get to be creative and to face customers ». This revelation came in the Caribbean, where Flavio went after a few months in London — the dire climate there made him look at much sunnier horizons. And, unlike many compatriots, it was clear that he wouldn’t start his new career in the UK. « I thought to myself, ‘Flavio, you’re 22, you were born in Rome and you don’t speak Italian, you need to do something about it’ » For although the name might be 100% transalpine, Flavio was raised in France and, as he contemplated his future, he was determined to take the next step in Italy.
As a country, Italy boasts some of the best bartenders in the world. Indeed, the London cocktail scene — in particular the West End bars — owes a lot of its current reputation to Italian bartenders. But a decade ago, except Milan’s very own Nottingham Forest and a couple of hotel bars, finding a good cocktail bar in Italy was insanely hard work. As Flavio stepped off the plane in 2007, everything was to be done. « It was all about the Sbagliato and the Spritz. As a bartender, if someone ordered a Martini, that was the most interesting thing of your evening », he says.
Flavio launched his first bar alone and saw quite soon this was not going to work. « When you try to do everything on your own, there’s a limit to how much you can grow », he now says. This first experience was eye-opening: « I quickly realized that out of 100 people, 50 will love you and 50 will hate you. So you need to work with people who are not like you so you can seduce the remaining 50 ». In a move characteristic of his career since, Flavio identified those missing but complementary qualities in Marco Russo, one of his employees. He offered him to partner for the opening of a new bar.
In October 2011, they launched Mag Cafè. Because Mag proved an instant success, Flavio and Marco quickly decided to open a second bar, a speakeasy called 1930. « Mag was packed every night, we weren’t making new clients and 1930 was intended to help us clear out Mag and attract more people », Flavio explains. And two months after 1930 opened in February 2013, the movie The Great Gatsby was released… « Sometimes, you need a bit of luck. With the movie, the 1930’s became very trendy and so did our bar ».
Meanwhile, the appeal of Mag Cafè remained constant, attracting a clientele that cares more for trends than for drinks, which worried Flavio. « During the week, we were selling a lot of our signature drinks but on weekends everyone wanted Moscow Mules, Gin & Tonics or Mojitos. Whatever drink was trendy at the time. This is not what we wanted to do so we did train our team to tell those clients ‘Right, you want a Negroni but we will make our twist of the Negroni, if that’s OK with you’ ». The classic version of those drinks were moved next door at BackDoor43. Initially, it was just a small window where you’d order your cocktail to go — served in a paper cup by a bartender whose hands were the only thing you’d see. This proved a huge hit and Flavio decided to open the back part of BackDoor43 , booking only. « That’s how it became the smallest bar in the world — and the smallest / biggest / whatever of the world, it always sells ». The diminutive venue fits 4 people and you can even pick your own music. Yes, the concept sells itself.
Of course, as a serial entrepreneur, Flavio didn’t stop there. More bars followed: Barba, a music and vinyl focused hotspot, and Iter, which he describes as « our little jewel », focusing every six months on a different country. He also launched Farmily, a craft spirit company (the first four letters stand for his and Marco Russo’s name). « It’s Flavio and Marco’s family… We took on board a few of our employees — we asked them if they were interested to invest and become partners ». More than a smart way to incentivize the team, this approach, running through all of Flavio’s businesses, is a great symbol of the open and collaborative culture he is trying to instill.
A year before Mag, Jerry Thomas Project had also opened in Rome. Back then, it was impossible to foresee, but both bars moved the goalposts and revolutionized the Italian cocktail scene. As is clear from a conversation with Flavio — or with any of the Jerry Thomas guys — much of the work done over the last 8 years was a community building exercise. « In Italy, people tend to think it’s better outside — that’s why most Italian bartenders worked abroad and didn’t invest here. And there was also a tendency not to realize we’re all playing on the same team. This is changing, and the results are there », Flavio tells us. Indeed: 1930 made it into the World’s 50 Best Bars list this year. In total, there are four Italian bars in the top 100. It’s a first, and the whole Italian community celebrated it in style. Times are changing and a guy who moved to Milan to learn Italian has something to do with it.