The tender: Mario Rana
The bar: Cuoco Pazzo (4175 N. Goldwater Blvd., 480-265-9814)
The pedigree: Rana fell in love with creating drinks when he started behind the bar of a coffee shop at age 14. He later started barbacking at the restaurant owned by his parents, then began working at wine bars around the Valley, including Kazimierz World Wine Bar and Javino's. Now he owns both the Mad Chef Gastropub in Ahwatukee and Cuoco Pazzo. Most nights he manages the restaurant, but you can find him working the bar on Thursdays.
What attracts you to drink-making?
It's just something I enjoy. I enjoy learning about the history of the beverages; I enjoy taking classic cocktails and putting my own twist on them. Right now I'm doing a cocktail list where I take classic cocktails -- a manhattan, a caipirinha -- and incorporate Italian liqueurs in there. I like variation, having something that no one else is doing, being the first to do something. My new passion is incorporating beer into cocktails -- you don't see a lot of that around here. I'm kind of a pioneer.
I like making my own concoctions. Back when I was younger, I used to go around the neighborhood and collect twigs and flowers and mix them with water. My magic potions, I called them. I've always been into making some type of concoction.
Did you drink them?
I always tried them, and they never tasted like I wanted them to. That's why I enjoy cocktails, because they actually turn out the way I want them to.
This place has a pretty impressive tap list, and some of the foods also incorporate brew. Is that your influence?
Yeah. We have one of the best chefs in the Valley (Peter DeRuvo), but my family all cooks, and the only food he doesn't change is the pizza dough. It's our family recipe -- no one beat our pizza dough -- and beer adds a whole extra element to it. We use Devil's Ale from SanTan.
What was your first drink?
I think I stole a bottle of Johnny Walker Red out of my parents' liquor cabinet. I mixed it with Coke thinking I'd make a Jack and Coke, not realizing that what I had was scotch. Not very tasty.
What do you drink now, when you're out?
If I'm at your typical place, I'll try to find something hoppy. If I'm at a beer bar, I'll go for a Russian imperial stout. My new favorite thing right now is bourbon-aged imperial stouts. If there isn't good beer, I'll go for wine or Irish whiskey.
What's your least favorite part about the job?
People who complain and think we're not giving them a big enough pour or think they were overcharged. I would never take advantage of anyone -- I always give them what they're paying for. Also people who treat servers like dirt. Especially in this area, you sometimes get people who treat you like you're their slave. I don't like to tell people outright that I own this restaurant -- I don't need any credit. They can think I'm the busboy for all I care. But the funny thing is, when they do think I'm the busboy, they'll sometimes treat me like crap.
Kind of a Prince and the Pauper situation.
Yeah. On a busy Friday night, I sometimes have to be on the floor clearing out plates, filling up water. It's a whole different world when people think I'm a busboy and when I go over as the manager and ask how everything was.
Your family owns several restaurants. Are there plans to open more in the future?
Oh, of course. We want to have a restaurant empire. We're working on another place right now -- just planting the seed. Nothing has been decided, but the land owners know we're definitely interested in the spot.
If you weren't bartending, what would you be doing?
I'd probably be selling beer and wine to restaurants, working for a distributor as a liquor rep. Even if it wasn't my profession, drinks would still be my passion.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Teddy Roosevelt. He's just a genuine American badass.
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