It’s A Wonderful Life

(This is the first in a series of profiles of American women bartenders by Mark Marowitz. Readers should submit the names and contact information of women whom they would like to see profiled in future sketches. First up is Victoria Damato of San Francisco, CA.)

Victoria is inventive, sophisticated, funny and is rich from her family’s history and traditions.

In 1902 the D’Amato brother’s (later written as Damato) left their native Sicily and brought their families to North Beach, San Francisco, California, now known as ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’, to start anew in the New World and to fish the rich waters off the coast of Northern California. A hard and rugged existence, to be sure.

Victoria says that during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the D’Amato’s and the other Italian fishing families took their fleet of fishing boats and sailed to Angel Island. Here they built camps, fished and watched the city burn on the horizon. They returned with much needed sustenance (fish) and shared the fruits of the sea with the forlorn folks back in North Beach.

During the Great Depression, the Damatos’ and the other families, provided for their neighbors and in turn goods and services were provided to them and all survived those difficult times.

Italians brought their tradition of wine making and wine’s wayward sibling, vinegar, with them wherever they settled. Even today the faint aroma of wine vinegar wafts up from the basements of the homes on Mason St. in North Beach.

Fast forward to the ’50’s. Victoria’s uncles Freddie and Tommy Damato opened Damato’s Bar on Broadway in North Beach. This colorful era is lovingly portrayed in Dick Boyd’s "Broadway North Beach – The Golden Years," a book I read cover to cover in one sitting.
In 1956 Vic’s dad Danny Damato took his first shift behind the stick at 17 years of age, at La Rocca’s Corner on Columbus Ave. During his early 20’s, Danny moved over to the Intrigue Bar on Vallejo St. As the story was related to Victoria, 45 years later, her dad took his size 14’s, hopped on the bar and did a Gene Kelly imitation so spectacular that he was known by his peers as "Dancin’ Danny Damato". Later Dancin’ Danny moonlighted as a bartender to support his young family at the Italian American Athletic Club and the Italian American Social Club both located in North Beach.

Victoria remembers when she was 12, riding with her dad in his white Chevy Impala with the red leather interior thru the red-light district on B’way. She espied a naked woman dancing, through the window of a club. She asked Dancin’ Danny, "Dad, why don’t you own a bar?" He replied, "Sweetheart, if I owned a bar you would be sitting real pretty, right now. And by the way, don’t ever think about getting into the bar business!" Victoria’s eyes opened wide and shone like two lantern’s on a dark night.

At the bar in the basement of the Damato home, Victoria learned to prepare her first drink, a ‘Shirley Temple’. At 14, she perfected the Stinger and the Grasshopper. Every Christmas, Victoria added to her now encyclopedic knowledge of mixed drinks. One of the last drinks she was taught in her dad’s basement was the North Beach Manhattan, built as follows: 2 parts brandy, 1 part Italian vermouth, 2 dashes Maraschino liqueur, Maraschino cherry garnish.

A fellow from the neighborhood known as Uncle Bob tapped the now 21 year old Victoria to be a cocktail waitress at the Balboa Cafe on Fillmore St. Later, at Jeremiah Towers’ Stars Restaurant, Victoria took the opportunity to make a few tall drinks behind the bar and in general made herself useful to the barmen.

Victoria left the business for more than a decade to pursue a more lucrative life, because opportunities in North Beach for a woman bartender were few (i.e. non-existent). In 2000, Victoria’s cousin Mark Nicco inherited Tony Nick’s Cafe on Stockton St. in North Beach. Originally Tony Nicco’s Cafe when it opened in the early 30’s, the name was changed during WW2 because of Italian bashing. Inflating her resume, Victoria sold herself to cousin Mark as the perfect candidate for the now available bartender/bar manager gig. Victoria laughs about it today because in the beginning she found herself on the phone, a few times a day, asking her dad for instructions. He was furious that she returned to the bar business but Victoria is very persuasive and besides her dad was always putty in her hands.

In 2006 Victoria left Tony Nick’s Cafe to start her own business. She invents cocktails for spirit companies, winning eight cocktail competitions along the way. She has developed signature drinks for events like the North Beach Mural Restoration Project. She works private parties, usually of the corporate variety in the San Francisco area.

On the website of Victoria can be seen in a few instructional videos making the difficult look effortless.
For Victoria a great bartender is all about personality and passion. Victoria’s future plan is to open her own bar/lounge in North Beach.

Here are two examples of Victoria’s award winning original cocktails:

The Bordello

  • 1 oz. Campari
  • 1 oz. Gran Centenario Añejo Tequila
  • 1 oz. Meyer lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 3 oz. passion fruit juice
  • spritz of soda
  • lemon twist & cinnamon stick garnish

    In a chilled tumbler add the juice of a Meyer lemon and cinnamon; mix or shake thoroughly; add the remaining ingredients
    SHAKE WELL! Strain into a highball glass and add the spritz of soda. Garnish the drink by wrapping the lemon twist around the cinnamon stick and lay it over the glass.

    The Valentino

  • 1 oz. Aperol
  • 1 oz. Gran Centenario Reposado Tequila
  • 1 oz. fresh rhubarb juice*
  • 1/2 oz. agave/pomegranate/ginger syrup**
  • 3 oz. fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
  • slice of lime
  • 2 oz. soda
  • grapefruit & lime garnish

    In a chilled tumbler add the spirit, rhubarb juice, syrup and grapefruit juice. Shake and strain into a double rocks glass. Squeeze the slice of lime over the top. Add the spritz of soda. Garnish the drink and serve with a smile.

    * (Cut fresh rhubarb into chunks and parboil, then steam until all the rhubarb is pulp. Mash the rhubarb thru a fine mesh sieve and refrigerate the juice.

    ** (In a pot, mix 2 parts agave nectar, 1 part pomegranate juice and 1/4 piece of whole ginger; bring to a boil and let sit until it reaches room temperature; remove the ginger slice.Refrigerate in a glass bottle until needed.)

    Mark Marowitz is a bartender and freelance writer, specializing in spirits and cocktails. Mark is a lifelong resident of Manhattan Island and one far off day would like his ashes scattered in his beloved Central Park. Mark is a graduate of the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) program. He is currently drinking Weeper’s Joy and Chrysanthemum cocktails and mixes the best Martini he has ever tasted. He is in love with Jill DeGroff but, alas, his love is unrequited for she loves another.

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    9 Responses to It’s A Wonderful Life

    1. TheWhiteSeal says:

      Hi there,A while back I started brewing my own wine, I have really started getting into it and now actually sell my wine to friends and family. I wanted to add that extra touch to my wine so I designed my own wine labels and had them printed by a british labels company who did a excellent job. It has made my wine bottle look really great!

    2. The Museum of the American Cocktail says:

      Hi White Seal,Thanks for writing. But you don\’t mean to say that you "brew" wine, right? Wine is fermented, while beer (and the precursor for spirits like bourbon and Scotch) are actually brewed, as in heated up.

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