Born to the bar

Hamish Smith talks to Ago Perrone about his journey from Lake Como to London’s Connaught bar


THE STUDY of how the physical environment predisposes people towards particular ends is known as environmental determinism. Ago Perrone thought he wanted to be a photographer, his parents were certain he would become an accountant but, born on Lake Como, hospitality had slowly seeped into his consciousness.

“Sometimes I’d skip school, go for a walk, a chit-chat and the bar for coffee, maybe an aperitivo. I became interested in the dynamics of the bar. One bar made great aperitivo cocktails with fresh lime – a rarity in Italy 20 years ago. I asked to work there when I finished school,” says Perrone.

Perrone’s idea was to work in bars to put himself through university. “I wanted to discover photography – I read National Geographic and wanted to discover places, culture and people. I was a dreamer – I wanted to travel.”

Working in a bar, an enclosed space on a fixed site, isn’t that, but somehow it sated Perrone’s thirst for adventure. “In bars I met a lot of tourists, lots of people from different jobs and cultures.”

He started to study the provenance and geography of cocktails and ingredients and now had the bar bug. He would often work for free around Como and Milan – anywhere he could gain knowledge – discotheques, coffee shops, even gelatarias. “I never regret what I did,” says Perrone, even if there was “friction” with his parents.

Military service was untimely – lucky then it was the first year an alternative option was offered. Perrone did his time with the World Wildlife Federation (“it was compulsory but I like animals”). Though nothing could tear him away from the bar. He enrolled in an American bartending course and under the wing of his mentor, Simone Masi, went to work in Monza. Masi and Perrone’s bar was boat-shaped and themed around Peter Pan – an unserious sort of place, but with serious cocktails. From here – and via a stint as an assistant teacher at a bar school – came their big break. “Simone always wanted to come to London. He was my mentor so if he went, I would go too.” They had been hired to open a cocktail bar in a London restaurant.

In the event Masi went back to Italy after three weeks – family called – and Perrone, aged 24, was on his own. But not for long. This was the time of early pioneers – Lab and Milk & Honey were at their peak – and Perrone soon joined a band of bartenders furrowing a new way. “My dream was to work at Lab, and after I opened my first bar, I was asked by Dre Masso [Lab’s head bartender] to join his new place – Salvador & Amanda in Covent Garden.”

Then came another opportunity – working with Nidal Ramini and Giuseppe Santamaria at Dusk in Battersea from 2004-2006. He rose to head bartender and started competing. “My profile started to rise,” says Perrone.

Perrone then opened one of the most famous bars of its era – Montgomery Place in Notting Hill, where he was working again with Ramini and an emerging Marian Beke. Montgomery was “in the spotlight.” But by now Perrone was emitting his own glow too. He won Best UK Bartender in 2006 with Class magazine – the premiere bartender title at the time.

By 2008 the Connaught Bar opened. Perrone had got the call a few months earlier and now, nine years on, it’s hard to separate the two. If ever the bar’s famous David Collins-designed interior is refurbished, they’ll make room for all the awards. There have been too many to mention. Enough to make his parents proud though. He might not have gone into accountancy, but Perrone’s career in bartending has been one of calculated success.