Brooklyn native Richard Boccato started working the door at Little Branch and has since ascended to the forefront of the New York cocktail movement. He owns Dutch Kills in Long Island City and co-owns Painkiller in Manhattan’s Lower East Side with Giuseppe Gonzalez. A bar extension will soon add another station to Dutch Kills, which according to Boccato, is designed to “increase the level of service, make everybody happier.” He also teamed with Kathryn Weatherup on Weather Up TriBeCa. We’d met previously in Los Angeles and recently caught up by phone, where Boccato further explained his background and outlook.
What was your first bar job, and how did that come about?
Little Branch. I started there as the doorman, knew Joseph Schwartz and Sasha [Petraske] through mutual friends growing up. I needed a job, needed to moonlight, so the only position they had was doorman…From working the door, I worked my way downstairs to hosting, waiting tables and bartending at Little Branch. I bartended at Milk & Honey, worked at both bars. Sasha approached me about doing Dutch Kills, and the rest is history.
How did the opportunity come about at Weather Up?
Kathryn [Weatherup] and I have been friends years for years, from when I was at Little Branch and Milk & Honey. Since Weather Up in Brooklyn is close to where I grew up, I used to cover shifts on weekends and I fell in love with the place. When she asked me to do Weather Up in TriBeCa, it was an easy decision. It was like Dutch Kills and Weather Up having a baby in downtown Manhattan.
How do you differentiate the bar programs?
The cocktail program and ice program is not that much different because I had a big hand in both of them. The variations would be so slight as far as perhaps as a spirit or item of glassware…the block ice program we have been working with at Dutch Kills for the past two years is the same, but we bought the ice machine, and of course in TriBeCa there’s food.
Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?
When I was working the door at Little Branch, I didn’t really know too much about what was going on in the bar downstairs. I wasn’t very familiar with what was being done, the level of cocktails that were being served…I went downstairs one day and ordered a drink because it was cold, the bartenders didn’t know who I was, so they charged me for the drink. It was a Presbyterian, which ended up being one of my favorite drinks. I figured since it was a classy joint, they must have a high overhead. A couple nights later, I brought a date and was charged again for my drink.
What was it that made that Presbyterian so special?
Obviously everybody’s experience with our house ginger syrup is similar. The syrup is so spicy, but not overwhelming. The drink was good, balanced, crisp, probably not what I would order today, but it will always be one of my favorites. Then on my first shift behind the bar, it was the first drink ticket that came up, so I thought it was somehow providence.
Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?
Growing up, probably spirits. I don’t think I was interested in cocktails until about six years ago.
Was there moment when you knew you’d do this for a living?
New Year’s Eve 2006, a lot of people from the organization, from the bars, as most bartenders do on New Year’s Eve, they go and work in a high volume night club as a mercenary. We needed three people to work at Little Branch. Two were game. They looked past me, then stopped. Guess you’re going to get your button tonight. After getting through New Year’s Eve, that’s when I knew it was something I could do to ply my trade and make a living.
Would you say that you have any mentors?
I have several. Definitely Sasha Petraske and Joseph Schwartz. Sam Ross, Michael McIlroy, Eric Alperin, Christy Pope, everybody that trained me behind the bar at Milk & Honey when I first started working there.
Who are some other bartenders that you really admire, and how come?