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From Slinging Pancakes to Pouring Nebbiolo: Spinasse and Artusi's Adam Fortuna

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Welcome back to The Barkeepers, a monthly column dedicated to the men and women who work behind some of Seattle's hottest bars.
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[Photos: S. Pratt]

As Beverage Director for Spinasse and Artusi, certified sommelier Adam Fortuna easily explains Italian varietals to eager-to-learn (and thirsty) diners and drinkers.When he's not practicing his belt for an Alicia Keys rendition at one of Spinasse/Artusi chef Jason Stratton's infamous karaoke nights, Fortuna strolls the floors to improve the already stellar service in the Piedmont-focused Italian restaurant, hones wine lists, and shakes cocktails at Artusi's nearly-three-year-old bar.

Last year, he scooped Eater's 2013 Bartender of the Year Award, mostly voted on by the people who drink in this town. That's no small matter in a city with a burgeoning cocktail culture and plenty of great barkeeps. Eater sat down over cocktails with Adam to chat about how he went from slinging pancakes to pouring Nebbiolo, the service cliché he thinks is bunk, and that one spirit he'll never touch.

You've gotten a ton of recognition lately for being a badass bartender, but you seem to have your feet more in wine and management these days. Is that a conscious choice, moving away from spirits?
No, no. I do a lot of managing these days, but I still have my nights behind the bar, and I'm hoping to increase that soon. In addition to Artusi and Spinasse, I will hopefully be bartending somewhere else at a…good place…two days a week beyond what I'm doing now. I really want to get back to bartending. I haven't picked a place, but I'm definitely looking for a new part-time home.

With the Eater 2013 (Bartender of the Year Award) and the Daily Meal 25, I feel like I need to get back to tending more. It's like at least somewhat this ascension to this pinnacle, and I feel like I'm not even doing enough of what I'm getting recognized for. I was already kind of leaning toward that, and those awards just pushed me back even more.

You've been in more of a management capacity, as Beverage Director. What will you miss when you step back from that role?
I'll be sad to lose control of the list, the wine lists for Artusi and Spinassse…wine is a great love of mine. Right now I share General Manager duties with Michelle, who's been in the industry for a long time, and who has been at Spinasse since it opened six years ago. My realm right now is that I do both wine programs and the cocktail program for Artusi, and I'll be transitioning to bartending a night a week at each.

How did you end up so knowledgeable about wine?
I did the International Sommelier Guild, the ISG, I did the levels 1 and 2 there. When I moved to Seattle, I had the realization that I wanted to be in this industry at a high level. There was no clear cut leader here when we opened, so I knew that there was this opportunity to kind of like catapult myself if I put in the time.

With the opening of Jason Stratton's Aragona, have you gotten more into Spanish wines at all?
Not… really. Well, when [master sommelier Chris Tanghe] was preparing Aragona, he was working out of Artusi. I was a silent observer, indirect mentee, learning from when he was talking, because you can't help learning when he talks about wine.

I didn't know it until I worked at Artusi and Spinasse, but I'm really happy just only drinking Italian wine all the time. There's something so beautiful about a really aggressive Nebbiolo. I don't need oak or lots of fruit.

A very big thing for Jason, something that really drew me, is that he always has a really historical perspective on every dish he makes or every cocktail – he's really involved in that. It's a whole other level from where I go when I'm thinking about that.

How has the cocktail program transitioned from the original concept?
Originally, Jason wanted to do an aperitivo bar. So we started with small pours, you know, one ounce gin and tonics. Ideally, he was thinking you have very simple drinks and snacks before going to Spinasse. But when Spinasse doubled, it more than doubled the business. We always wanted to be an Amari bar, but the consumer knowledge and demand wasn't as high for that as we anticipated, or as accepting. So, I think we've gradually altered into a more encompassing cocktail bar, albeit with an emphasis on bitter.

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What about the food? It's so big for Spinasse, but a lot of people probably don't know much about Artusi's food.
I love that for as many accolades as Spinasse gets, it's still somehow under the radar. You wouldn't believe how many people are like "what is Spinasse?" I mean, Artusi I get, but Spinasse is just so good, and has been killing it for a while now.

Artusi, one of the other reasons it's so great, and so hard to leave management, is it's equal parts food, wine, and cocktails. Just really the balance. It's the bane of Artusi's existence, that people leave it to eat next door, but totally understandable. I get it, Spinasse is delicious, so I totally get it, but Artusi's food is awesome.

At first, it was really small, just like snack-style, truly like an aperitivo bar: things that can be assembled, pickles, fried capers. Jason would run little salad specials. But you can only hear "can we have the butter sage pasta?" so many times. And Jason was like "no, no, no, no…we should do pasta over here." This is not a commercial kitchen, but the same person is making the pasta, it's just different people boiling it and making sauce.

Do you think we could, now, three years after Artusi opened, have an Amaro bar in Seattle?
I wish? I don't know. Seattle's weird in that they're so cultured and intelligent, so smart, but at the same time, not. Like, we can't have a bar like where people only drink bitter liqueurs, even though that's definitely what Jason wanted, what he had in mind. Like, not without food, but no juices, just stirred cocktails, like at Amor y Amargo in New York.

What are you excited about in booze these days?
Low-proof cocktails, I'm really excited about, and aperitifs. I also hope some local distillers start making liqueurs rather than just gin and vodka.

With all the hard to pronounce liqueurs and components, pricey wines, and unfamiliar words on the menus, people probably ask a lot of questions or get frustrated. How do you stay humble about the amount of varietal knowledge, or give good service when people assume you're pretentious?
Artusi is seriously good, unpretentious service. It's always a challenge, but you have to keep a certain idea in your head, the truth that "I am very lucky you are sitting at my bar right now." Because you are, especially in a neighborhood as rich with food and drink as our neck of Capitol Hill, lucky. So, whatever I can do to make you have a great experience so that you'll come back, that's what I will do.

I feel like that is really cliché these days, to say "we really care about service." Before it was, like, "we make really great cocktails and are masters of our craft." And now, it's trendy to say "we really care about giving great service" and I think more people talk about it than actually do it.

There are always customers who are outrageous, but that's like 1 percent. But there's always something you can do, some way you can make everything feel right.

Did you ever consider making the move to Aragona when it was opening? Was it at all appealing to change gears, in terms of their approach to cocktails vs. Italian cocktail culture?
You know, Spain has really great cocktails, but it's not a cocktail culture. They have wine and bubbles and sherry, and gin and tonic, the national drink – it really is everywhere, they're drinking it all the time. So, I think Jason tried to bridge the gap on what the cocktail scene is they have and the Northwest cocktail scene.

I absolutely considered it. Jason had spoken about the possibilities of Aragona since my infant stages at Artusi. It was one of my reasons for going to Spain, and I was kind of hellbent on it, but when it came down to it, I had weaseled my way so far into Artusi and Spinasse, that it just didn't make sense. And then, with bringing Chris on and David Nelson, it became less of a necessity. We didn't need to make Aragona great at the expense of Artusi and Spinasse, to frontload it with people. It got there on its own. And I was happy to stay, though I still think about it. I would love to work with Chris, and [chef de cuisine Carrie Mashaney] is obviously incredible. We butted heads at first, because we're both so opinionated, but we get along great.

Thanks to the karaoke outings?
Of course. Karaoke fixes everything.

You grew up in a small town in Michigan, but ended up at Artusi. What came in between that got you here?
I've worked in restaurants my whole life, but since I became a server, I've worked at four places. I worked at Perkin's in Michigan, a really busy weekend breakfast place, starting when I was a sophomore in high school. When I was in college in Michigan, I worked for a chef-owned bistro which was fine dining for a small town, but wouldn't have stood out quite so much in a restaurant town like Seattle. They had Cynar and Campari and microbrews, but with fine dining and wine. I learned a lot about wine and food. And even after I graduated, I was waiting for my wife to finish her Master's program, so I kept working there. [Fun fact: Adam has been married to his wife for nearly half his life.] I got some flack for not using my degree I had just earned, but it's what I wanted.

So, when we moved to Seattle, I had a friend who got me a job at Sazerac. I was looking to serve, though I had bartended a night a week at the bistro, but the job that was open was as a bartender. I was like "I can totally bartend in Seattle. I can totally take on this craft cocktail thing" which in all honesty, I had no clue about. I basically got a well on my first night, and the drinks on their crazy busy happy hours are cosmos and lemon drops. So, I just threw together a lemon drop, and they were cool with it. There was one bartender, Jason McGrady, who was recently at Café Pettirosso, who taught me a shitload.

I was experimenting a lot, working full time, and I had a lot of freedom. I learned very quickly not to test an unproven cocktail on a customer. I felt like within six months, I was a really solid bartender, really fast. I couldn't, probably, make you a Toronto or something awesome like that, but I could make a really perfect cosmo, in like a second. And it would be delicious. And I knew how to charm people, I got by on my personality.

Alright, so you're a charming, motivated, fairly new to Seattle bartender, making mostly cosmos. How did you get to Artusi, besides that wine training bit?
I branched out because I won the Kimpton Employee of the Year. I'm not just behind the bar, I want places I work to run efficiently. So, I was going on vacation to Mexico, and I wrote two cover letters, pretty similar, actually: one to King's (Hardware), and one to Jason. And I apparently killed it with the cover letter and had a voicemail from Jason when I came back.

And not from King's?
Nope. I never heard from them. And they were honestly pretty similar letters, just both trying to sell the shit out of me. "I promise me that if you give me the opportunity, I will fucking kill it. I will work so hard, I can do fine dining, I'm a chameleon…" just blindly writing to someone I'd never met before.

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You'd never met Jason, like in the halls of the karaoke dens?
I'd never done karaoke before I started here. Jason Stratton, direct quote, fucking completely changed my life. In so many ways. (Like, fashion too? Barely. One time we wore yellow socks on the same day, and I'll never come close to his fashion echelon ever again. He was like disgusted by my yellow socks and loved his yellow socks.)

So after the voicemail, I staged a couple shifts at Spinasse. I got another call, asking what my schedule was, and I was like "do I have a job? I'd love to quit Sazerac tonight." And he was like "no." So, I worked a couple more shifts at Spinasse. I have no Seattle resume prior to this. And then finally, yeah, I was the last person hired to Artusi, and it was because someone dropped out. That was June 2011, and this is what I've done, all the time, since then.

What are your favorite spirits or cocktails to play with? Anything you won't touch? A shift drink you can't get enough of?
You know, you spend so many years catering to other people's tastes…One thing that I really just adore is Campari, and seeing what it can work with and what it can't. I love making daiquiris. I love a daiquiri, just a standard, classic, hard-shaken, simple drink, done beautifully.

In high school, er, college, you know, everyone goes through that flavored rum phase, so rum gets a bad rap sometimes. Like Bacardi Razz in a Sprite bottle…I still can't touch even regular Bacardi.

For the first two years, it was a Plymouth Negroni with Cynar instead of sweet vermouth. But now, I mean, I drink a ton of wine. Maybe a Toronto, I just think it's one of the best things ever. I love reposado tequila…in a shot glass…drank quickly.

Adam's perfect Toronto recipe:
I do two ounces of rye, something spicy like Rittenhouse or Bulleit, a quarter ounce of 2:1 simple syrup, a quarter ounce of Fernet, and in my own, for myself, I like 3-4 heavy dashes of Angostura bitters. Angostura is a debated ingredient, but it really adds to it. I love it with that.

Why are you a bartender? Is there one moment you can pinpoint in your career, when you were like "Done, this is it. This is what I do."
The social interaction, I think. My wife is a mental health counselor and I don't think it's too far off my job description. As for an experience? There was this lady on one of the first days of spring last year, she walks in, sits at the bar by herself. Normal customer, normal day. She orders some stuff and asks questions, and we get to talking, and she becomes one of those guests that you just have a rapport with. We talk, talk, talk. At the end of her leaving, she was like "I usually have a martini in South Lake Union after work, but the sun was out, and something told me to walk up here. And my friend died today, and you completely turned my day around, and you are doing exactly what you should be doing." I'm going to cry… I kind of get chills thinking about it. And in this moment, I was completely emotionally wealthy. Having the freedom to not be in a corporate structure and just talk to people, that's why.
· Artusi [Official Site]
· Spinasse [Official Site]
· All Barkeepers Coverage [-ESEA-]

Spinasse

1531 14th Avenue, , WA 98122 (206) 251-7673 Visit Website

Artusi

1535 14th Avenue, , WA 98122 (206) 251-7673 Visit Website

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