AC Date Night: Gelateria Gemelli & Milonga Room
Amaro never dies
Walking along East Sixth Street, hand in hand with my main squeeze, Gelateria Gemelli's marquee lightbulb ice cream cone beckoned, and I felt like we were Archie and Veronica on our way to the Choklit Shoppe. But stepping inside the sleek parlor, it's obvious that times have changed. I don't doubt that Betty would've found post-rejection comfort in a negroni – were she of legal drinking age – and Jughead most certainly could have demolished some peanut butter stracciatella.
We hadn't had dinner yet, but frozen gelato and herbal Italian liqueur seemed an appropriate meal for this oppressively warm summer night. After sampling several superb flavors, I settled on a scoop each of tangy plum sorbetto and olive oil gelato, so beautifully saturated with olive essence I was tempted to dip some ciabatta in it, while my boyfriend chose strawberry (the last batch of the season before peach takes over) and a goat's milk & honey blend. Two pizzelles, pastry maven Laura Cole's anise-inflected waffle cookies, perched delicately atop our scoops, giving the presentation instant drama. Houston artist Kel Brown's kaleidoscopic artwork provides the perfect backdrop for a social media post, if one is so inclined.
I asked the gentleman behind the counter (Gemelli owner Andy Sabola) which liqueur he thought would pair well with my selection. Since the plum sorbetto packed a tart and savory punch – lots going on – he recommended Amaro Nonino, which is one of the more neutral amari. The walnut-based spirit was smooth and sweet, reminding me more of a tawny port than a bitters. My date, in contrast, went straight for the Mexican Fernet-Vallet, its aromatic roots and herbs (clove, cardamom) fitting my definition of a bitter digestif. I wouldn't say it paired well with our sweet treats, but it was intoxicating sipped on its own.
I had been eager to scope out the speakeasy below Buenos Aires Cafe. Milonga Room isn't a secret anymore, but when I found out it is an amaro-focused bar, it seemed the natural place to venture after our first round of drinks. We had to text our name, party size, and desired reservation time to the business phone number to request a table, and then provide a password upon entry. When we entered the subterranean chamber, I understood why all the effort to secure a spot. With only about 25 seats, a third of that dedicated to the bar and the rest split between velvet-backed banquettes and a chaise longue, there was hardly any standing room. It was loud, perhaps due to the low, stamped-tin-tile ceiling, but still felt cozy and romantic.
Our host, Paola MG Smith (co-owner of Buenos Aires with her mother, chef Reina Morris), welcomed us with a taste of her country's version of amaro, called Pineral Argentina. It had a powdery nose and subtle fruit flavor, and a mild vapor that left my tongue tingling. As this was essentially an aperitif, we were pleasantly surprised to see that they serve tapas. (Who was I kidding to think that gelato alone could suffice as my last meal of the day?) Of the six empanada options, we chose the carne picante (spicy ground beef, raisins, and olives, with chimichurri). We also tried the tubérculos (roasted parsnips and other earthy roots) and the picada (a well-stocked charcuterie and cheese plate).
To dilute our hearty snacks, we ordered a Buenos Aires julep, which subbed Cynar artichoke liqueur and Pompelmo grapefruit soda for bourbon and seltzer, and the Milonguero (the name for folks who frequent milongas – tango dance halls), a concoction of rye whiskey and Amaro Meletti. Sipping my timeless cocktail among Milonga Room's antique decor had me feeling nostalgic for eras I've never experienced in my lifetime. Speakeasies and soda shops have reclaimed their place in contemporary culture, and I'm pleased as punch.
Gelateria Gemelli1009 E. Sixth, 512/535-2170
Milonga Room1201 E. Sixth, 512/593-1920