In New York City, if you hear someone say, “a cocktail bar has just opened,” your ears don’t perk too much. We have an abundance of at least one thing, and that’s a place to sit down and drink. However: When a place to do that is opened by people revered in their industry, an ear will perk plenty. And so ours did, too, with a new bar that riffs on Italian cocktails in Carroll Gardens, August Laura.
Opened by industry veterans Alyssa Sartor (previously of the Bar Room) and general manger extraordinaire, Frankie Rodriguez (of multiple award-winning Death & Co), August Laura is named after Sartor’s Italian grandfather: He happened to have grown up only four blocks form August Laura’s Court Street address. “The minute she walked in, she goes, ‘hell yeah,’” Rodriguez recounted of Sartor’s reaction to their bar, as he sat on one of its cushioned and extremely comfortable navy blue banquettes. The space had previously been Bourgeois Pig, and then Bergen Hill. When the couple came to look at it—downtrodden from seeing so many expensive places in bad condition—they thought it looked great, and was affordable. “The space itself didn’t need too much, it was really just like, ‘make it sexy,’” Sartor summarized.
And so they have. It looks and feels a little like sitting at the bar in a ship’s cabin—wood paneling and a handsome navy hue runs throughout, and the ceiling is relatively low. Sartor helm’s the bar, shaking one of her delicious recipes after the next. I took a sip of the already-award-winning Cardinale, her version of a Negroni. Made from gin, Casoni 1814, dry vermouth, rhubarb bitters and an orange slice, it is more mellow and balanced, and less sweet than a classic Negroni. After two sips I declared I could drink seven. “See,” said Rodriguez, reacting to my reaction, “That’s why I opened the bar with her—I knew what she could do!”
After Rodriguez had been at Death & Co. for just under a decade, he needed to shake things up. He and Sartor had been dating and, about ten months into their relationship, they realized they should open their own place. Nine months later, we sat inside of it, drinking Sartor’s menu, and enjoying Rodriguez’s hospitality. I noted this sounded like a not normal, even ludicrously short, period of time to take something from thought to fruition. “Alyssa and I,” Rodriguez offered, “we tend to not be that normal.”
Which is lucky for us. Sartor said the concept behind August Laura was something like a cocktail bar crossed with a dive. I laughed, because surrounding me was nothing but class. Sinatra even poured out of the speakers. Rodriguez clarified. “Aesthetically we’re not: but the way we drink and party here, that’s a dive.” Later, they might substitute hip hop for Sinatra, Sartor said, or Dolly Parton, or anything. What the customer wants, goes. “You want a long island iced tea? I’ll make it! I don’t care.”
Which is a nice approach to take in an often overly stuffy food and alcohol landscape. And yet, as mentioned, Sartor can make a hell of a cocktail like it’s nothing, and her straight-forward and user-friendly menu has those in spades. In additional to her fantastic Cardinale, we tried her Amaretto Sour and Rossini: the first, dusted with cinnamon but not overly-sweet (she will regularly cut back on standard simple syrup portions) and the second, including a whole muddled strawberry, with prosecco and a gorgeous basil leaf. Each one stood out for being less saccharine and less booze-forward than many drinks (even though there was still plenty strong stuff in it), smooth, and pretty. “It’s so simple: you can make a great cocktail with two or three ingredients,” Rodriguez said admiringly of Sartor’s work. “It’s perfect.”
Rodriguez himself fills five jobs: administrator, bar back, bus boy, porter, and chef. He cooks delicious bar fare in the form of a Sloppy Jay (named after Rodriguez’s brother), with sweet Italian sausage, provolone and American cheese, and a mildly sweet brioche roll (Rodriguez’s own recipe, created while smoking a joint—so you know it’s delicious, and I vouch, it is), and a goat cheese and watermelon salad. A little savory, a little sweet, at once balanced, not quite standard, delicious.
Rodriguez and Sartor are impeccable hosts, and expect to see them both any time you walk in. They’ve become friendly with all their neighbors, including the janitor at the nearby school, and have spent almost every hour there since they opened in May. “For the past three months, we’ve been here for 16 to 18 hours a day,” says Rodriguez. “We go home, play with the animals, sleep a little, get up, and we’re here.” I tell the I am tired listening to that, which they appreciate, but they love what they do, and they’re good at it. It helps them keep going through the fog, every day from 5pm until 2am (and 3am on Fridays and Saturdays).
Sartor talked about her grandfather. “At home, at mom’s fire place, she had a plaque that said his name, August Laura,” said Sartor. She was only a toddler when he died, but she remembers him, she says, and always felt she had a connection to him. This spring, while her family took a trip to Italy, and stayed in the hotel their Italian family owns, she and Rodriguez were in Carroll Gardens, laboring to open an Italian cocktail bar in his name. Not as relaxing as a trip to Italy, I said, but her work honored his memory even more than a vacation. “I’m happy to take the high road,” Sartor joked, “I keep saying, I think this place found us.”
387 Court St, Carroll Gardens
All photos by Jane Bruce