THE BLU GROTTO’S MIX MASTER CREDITS A LEGENDARY SOMERVILLE BARMAN AS HIS INSPIRATION

BY GILDA ROGERS • PHOTOS BY ROBERT NUZZIE

Amalio Rodriguez III is to the spirit world what a five-star chef is to the culinary arts; a master at creation. The bar manager at the Blu Grotto Ristorante at Monmouth Race Track in Oceanport, opened last July, he was the first-prize winner last November of the Jersey Shore Martini Contest held at Doolan’s Shore Club in Spring Lake, named “Judges Choice” for his delicious but slightly scandalously titled cocktail, “The Bi Curious George.” Rodriguez came up with the recipe (vanilla-infused vodka, prepared in house, mixed with Fratello Hazelnut Liquor, Gifford Banana Liquor, agave, and an egg).

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Rodriguez’s enthusiasm is palpable, as he delivers wide-ranging knowledge about everything from ice quality to the ethereal qualities of a superior drink, and is particularly busy planning the opening of the restaurant’s outdoor beer garden.

The Perth Amboy native actually stumbled upon what turned out to be his true occupation.

“I started 13 years ago, working at a dark dive bar, pouring shots and beers to make cash for college,” said Rodriguez. He went on to graduate from Muhlenberg School of Nursing in Plainfield, and after working for three years in that profession, realized it simply wasn’t for him. (“In fact, I hated it,” he recalled with a smile.)

Fate (or some might say, spirit) stepped in. After leaving the nursing field, he got a job at a sports bar in Hillsborough, and met his “spirit mentor,” the legendary and dapper mixologist N. Bryan Mack, at the Verve Bistro in Somerville. That’s where the young barman’s self-described “religious training” began.

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“He changed the course of my life,” offered Rodriguez, adding that he honors Mack with every drink he pours (his mentor passed away unexpectedly in January). At the Blu Grotto, a picture of Mack and his hat grace the bar area, and Rodriguez credits him with the best advice he’s ever received: “In life, things happen. Let them roll; don’t give anyone the power.”

Rodriguez presides over Blu Grotto’s stylish, amiable bar with panache. A voracious reader with a biblical understanding of how spirits are made, he is given to repeating another of Mack’s famous quotes: “Everyone likes every spirit. They just haven’t had it the right way.” Amen.

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Blu Grotto Ristorante
200 Port au Peck Avenue, Oceanport
732.571.7900 / blugrottonj.com