Justin Sutton making cocktails at Corso. Photo Corso
Bar manager Justin Sutton, a former Marine, making cocktails at Corso in North Berkeley. Photo courtesy Corso

At the height of service, it’s not always easy to get into a conversation with a bartender, even when you are a person who calls herself Ms Barstool. So we set up a pre-cocktail meeting with bar manager Justin Sutton and bartender Matt Bruns prior to hopping on a barstool at Trattoria Corso in Berkeley.

We wanted to hear about some changes the trattoria has undergone, including a new bar program, and what happened when they took the TVs away.

Sutton, a former Marine, had jobs in several local dining establishments, including Absinthe in San Francisco and Revival in Berkeley, before finding his way to Corso. Bruns went to culinary school, worked in several restaurants in Atlanta, then moved here and started a new business in town.

Both Sutton and Bruns were delighted to have the chance to talk about what they do, and to share some of their behind-the-bar techniques. A dedicated bartender will tell you that what one orders off the cocktail menu is often the result of several tries at getting the drink just right. Bruns said he likes to put a “modern-day twist” on the cocktails he creates. (Bruns also creates at Shrub & Co based at Berkeley Kitchens, producing a variety of shrubs: a blend of fruit, sugar, and vinegar—originally intended as a way to preserve fruit in Colonial times, now enjoying a second career as tasty additions to cocktails.)

Corso exterior. Photo Corso
Trattoria Corso describes itself as a casual Florentine-style restaurant. Its owners also run Rivoli in Berkeley. Photo: courtesy Corso

Cocktail classics are golden, but at the same time, change is good. The list of cocktails at Corso, for example, will be changing over time too. Bruns and Sutton said that they are looking into some low-alcohol cocktails and adding more traditional Italian aperitivi to the menu. They mention bringing in some terroir gin and other products they can stand behind. Corso is primarily a food destination, and if people come in willing to try something new with food, they may also be willing to try something new in a glass.

The Sherwood at Corso. Photo: Risa Nye
The Sherwood at Corso. Photo: Risa Nye

Sutton said he usually experiments with seven variations before he gets a drink the way he likes it. He fiddles with the fractions in his drink formulas too; why just be restricted to halves and quarters as measurements? There are so many other ways to go. We also talked about the way Sutton likes to tweak the old, classic cocktail recipes, seeking to add a little “mid-palate bitterness.” He likes to take his cues from the food at Corso, which he describes as classic and rustic, and we describe as “delicious.”

We wanted to know what happened after the TVs were removed. Did people rise up and complain when the Italian movies were no longer playing in a loop over the bar? Initially, there was some blowback from patrons about it. Then these same patrons started griping to each other, and in the process they bonded with one another. New friendships were formed and the complaining ceased, which sounds like a Hollywood happy ending. People are enjoying each other’s company more without the visual, though attractive, distractions of Sophia Loren or Marcello Mastroianni.

New additions to the restaurant space include the subtle but effective sound baffles, with controls divided into small areas of the room — another way to make sure that patrons can converse with one another comfortably over drinks and dinner.

A typical crowd at Corso? According to Bruns and Sutton, it’s no longer strictly North Berkeley and the neighborhood, although it’s still a popular local destination. Both said they’re seeing more of a cross-section, with people coming in from other parts of the Bay Area. Many patrons are loyal fans of Rivoli, a sister restaurant in Albany.

the Fig Wood Smoked Manhattan at Corso Photo Corso
The Fig Wood Smoked Manhattan at Corso. Photo courtesy Corso

We returned to Corso at cocktail hour — early-ish on a Saturday evening. As we studied the drink menu, we faced the same challenge we always do: sometimes we go with the most popular drink — out of curiosity — and other times we go for something outside of our rather broad comfort zone.

On this evening, we felt like going with the crowd favorite: The Sherwood (rye, lemon juice, Michigan Tart Cherry, Swedish punsch, absinthe, honey, and rosemary). This lovely drink represented the transition between seasons to us: the cherries, as a farewell to summer, and the absinthe as an introduction to fall. The flavors of the seasons blended perfectly, with a bit of sweetness, some citrus, a hint of licorice and the heady aroma of the rosemary. Dark peach in color, with the green of the rosemary as garnish, this cocktail was almost too pretty to drink. Almost.

Another beautiful drink is the Mora Frizzante, which Sutton prepared for someone else. We were intrigued by its ruby color and the combination of vodka, house-made blackberry liqueur, lemon juice and Prosecco.

Next time, perhaps. Instead, we ordered dessert — the perfect way to end an evening at Corso.

The vibe: Convivial, comfortable, and conducive to conversation
The Crowd: A cross-section of Bay Area food and drink aficionados
The Drink: The Sherwood
The One to Try Next Time: Whatever Bruns and Sutton come up with. We trust them.
When to go: A celebratory event, date night, any time
The Deets: Trattoria Corso, 1788 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Connect with Corso on Facebook and Instagram

Are you a cocktail lover? Read previous Ms. Barstool reviews of Honor in EmeryvilleHotsy Totsy ClubEast Bay Spice CompanyBourbon & BeefPenroseGatherTribune Tavernthe ParagonBoot & Shoe ServicePicànHopscotchFiveRevivalFlora, and Prizefighter — and check Berkeleyside Nosh’s Guide to Drinking around Berkeley.

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Freelancer Risa Nye is a Bay Area native. She was born in San Francisco and grew up in the East Bay. She spent many happy years on the UC Berkeley campus, both as a student and as an employee. She has...