Inside Florence's First Speakeasy

After more than a year of construction and renovation, the historic city of Florence is now home to the cocktail-driven bar Rasputin, named after the famously hard-to-kill faith healer.

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Jun 10 2016, 4:00pm

A century ago, the controversial figure of Gregory Efimovich Rasputin met his fate at the untimely age of 47. A man of vice, decadence, and sloth—and yet simultaneously praised for his powers of healing and prophecy—Rasputin was unliked by many and was tormented by conspiring assassins. Puzzled by his immunity to cyanide-spiked wine and other nefarious tactics to end his life, his infuriated hunters took a more forceful approach. Raputin's mysterious resilience seemed almost taunting, as if he were saying, "If you want me dead, you'll have to drag me to hell." And so they did, wrapping him in a rug and throwing in several stabs and gunshots, topped off with a fatal plunge into the cold, icy river.

Ghermai Zerazion met his fate, but in far less dramatic conditions, when he was practically dragged from his beloved London. His longtime friend (and now business partner) convinced him to come back to Italy, abandon his indulgent life as a London barman and creature of the night. Two years later, the hundred-year anniversary of Rasputin's assassination, Zerazion opened Florence's first speakeasy, named after the emblematic figure.

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All photos by Beatrice Mancini.

Zerazion was born in Arcore, Lombardy, just 20 kilometers northeast of Milan, known also for being hometown to the wildly polemical Silvio Berlusconi, that waxy womanizer and humiliating political figure. After attending university in Milan, Zerazion set his eye on London, after a gap year there stole his heart. He worked in the bar industry between Milan and Rome until 2007, when he finally made the move to the land of tea and crumpets.

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"I love London for everything. It's a city that never stops," he says, describing his time there as one constant party, a crushing beast beating with positive energy. "In London, you have this incessant life of chasing bar after bar; then you hit up the clubs and afterparties. You could try to stay home, but you'd just end up partying even harder. I had no day off. And I reckon not a lot of others, too. After 10 PM, 99 percent of the city was drunk, minus the taxi and bus drivers."

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Back in Florence, he saw an opportunity to slow down and fulfill a dream that was conceived during a trip to Barcelona with Marco Vinci, another fellow Lombardian.

Vinci is the other half of Rasputin, overseeing the logistical bits while Zerazion concocts the menu. When Zerazion was partying London, Vinci was doing the opposite in mellow Florence—a city that might be the most beautiful in Italy, according to Zerazion, and one where the party ends at a respectable hour.

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The idea to open a speakeasy came from both of their experience working at Barts, self-proclaimed as "London's worst kept secret," a speakeasy bar with an underground atmosphere and vintage decor from the 1800s. When Zerazion and Vinci finally settled on the name Rasputin—after two months of ping-ponging ideas—they envisioned a bar that resembled an old-school Russian parlor, perhaps one where Rasputin himself would have entertained in drunken excess.

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But opening a business in Italy these days takes enormous courage, patience, and positive spirits. Vinci had found the perfect location, underground and practically in rubble—a huge project to overhaul into their dream bar. When he and Zerazion were ready to get started, they were met with an eight-month waiting game of mind-boggling bureaucracy. "We needed to get the space approved for the kind of activity we wanted to pursue. They wanted to know the nitty gritty down to the number of windows. The dimensions of the space had to match an order with windows." They endured mountains of paperwork and thumb-twiddling just to have the space approved. When they checked all the boxes, the restoration period began and lasted for another eight months. With a crew of 43 people, who installed everything from the floors and the pipes to the walls and lights, they finally transformed a literal hole in the wall into a proper bar.

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The pre-opening buzz was all word of mouth, and Zerazion saw a silver lining in that 16-month waiting period. It gave him and Vinci an opportunity to network with the local bar scene, and to also comb through countless vintage shops and markets across the country to find the perfect furnishings they hoped Rasputin would have appreciated. Even now, details for the reservation line can only be shared through word of mouth. They don't allow photography inside and they keep a watchful eye on social media fanatics. If you manage to get ahold of the reservation line, the only clue you're given is the street name, forcing you to wander through the 500-meter-long street until you discover the inconspicuous entry.

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When Rasputin finally made its debut, it sent waves through the city's bar scene. Florence, a very traditional and laid-back town, just started to get a whiff of craft cocktail culture. Zerazion explains that, among the many challenges of opening Rasputin, "most Florentines don't understand what the speakeasy era was. We have to dedicate a lot of time [to] explaining the concept, how to enjoy the drinks, and how to reserve." Although the city is the birthplace of the Negroni, getting people to wrap their heads around Prohibition-era cocktails from the 20s and 30s—in a city where it's hard enough to get people to eat something beyond what nonna cooked—is a feat itself.

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Despite its Russian inspiration, the bar also pays homage to Zerazion's Eritrean heritage, so you may find some wild cards in your glass. The menu is divided between historical classics—such as the Hanky Panky, made with a holy trinity of Fernet, gin, and vermouth—and signature drinks that Zerazion invents. He isn't afraid to blend in some bold flavors, such as the pungent Berbere spice blend straight from his parent's homeland, which he incorporates into an exotic twist on the Bloody Mary.

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Florence has met Rasputin with open-mindedness, despite the fact both of the owners aren't natives to the region. "The most I've ever heard is some Florentines' surprise that a black guy is speaking in a perfect Milanese dialect," Zerazion says, but adds that Florence has been nothing but welcoming to them. Perhaps it's what this little village needed, as many have praised the bar as "giving the city a new air."

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Likewise, it's clear that Florence is now home for Zerazion. The hedonistic chapter of nonstop excitement has been exchanged for the stability in Florence. Oh, and stay tuned—there may be a second speakeasy baby in the making.