Welcome to The Barkeepers, a feature in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite libations.
Peter Vitolo is definitely a people person. The mixologist for Spago and trainer for Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group has worked as a school aide for kids. He helped out his dad prepping cars at a dealership, where he learned how to get people to do things they didn’t want to do. He rubbed elbows with Quentin Tarantino and Marisa Tomei while working at an equities union in New York City. Then he got into bartending, busting his hump as a bar back in Union Square, then as a bartender at a gay club where he was one of two straight guys before he moved over to BR Guest. Then a couple friends starting telling him about the riches of Vegas, and he made the move to Sin City. Now you can find him behind the bar at Spago at the Forum Shops at Caesars. Here he talks about the bar scene in Vegas, his favorite ingredients and customers, and what you should be ordering when he’s behind the bar.
How do you compare the bar scene in Vegas to New York City.
I don’t want to say Vegas is behind the curve. People now look at bartenders differently. We were a honky tonk town where you bartended at strip clubs and nightclubs when I moved here. It’s transitioned now. If you don’t have a mixology department, you’re doomed. Herbs & Rye, Vesper Bar, they want to get their name out there. You don’t have to win a competition to get attention in New York.
I think I have a lot more passion than a lot of people in this business. My guests know when they talk to me, I’m genuine.
I have a bar class for new hires once or twice a month. We have an agenda that we follow every day. But what you bring to that table is your own.
What's the busiest time of the week?
That’s hard to say. It depends on the buzz. We have big conferences and the fashions shows. The commercial real convention, CES, the rodeos, then MAGIC, those conferences bring in a lot of people. They’ve been coming to Spago since it opened.
When Celine Dion is in town, the staff comes to the bar to drink and eat all night long.
The busiest time of the year is probably in the winter right around New Year’s Eve and after that into the spring before the pools open. Those four months are the busiest. No vacation requests are allowed. I work all the other holidays besides Christmas so I can go home.
What's the most popular drink here?
We make a lot of raspberry lemondrops. Lately it’s been bartenders’ choice. Our guests are starting to realize that there are a lot of creative people behind the bar now. No one’s ever sent anything back.
Who are your favorite customers?
I have a wealthy couple who live in Turnberry. The husband is from Belgium and the wife is from Wisconsin. They drink a lot of pinot noirs. I have an older couple from Brooklyn. He’s got his opinions the Jets, Mets, Yankees and Giants.
Do you have any customers you don’t like?
In nine years, I don’t have any customers that I dislike. The only thing I don’t like is when they show disregard for where you are. That’s not respectful. I don’t have any tolerance for that. I have to remain professional and say this person doesn’t belong here.
We threw out a guy named Justin who was really intoxicated after the World Cup. I said to GM, "I’m going to ask him to leave because he’s bothering everyone." This is not Crown & Anchor. People have a nice dinner.
I’m always the guy who doesn’t mind being confrontational.
Are there any ingredients or spirits you're especially excited about right now?
Right now I’m excited about things like spices, cider spices, cinnamon clove, pine needles, pine cones. Anything that smells like Christmas and the forest. White chocolate and eggnog. I could give you a dissertation on hot buttered rum.
I’m getting excited about herbs in the spring like fragrant verbena and lemon zest, citrus fruits, teas, chilling black teas and using them with whiskey.
Are there any drinks you hate making?
Frozen drinks because you can get electrocuted by the blender here. I just think frozen drinks are shit. You spend money and they may not have any alcohol in them.
Are there any that you really love making?
I love to make margaritas with tequila with fresh fruit from someone’s garden. I like to make mojitos and muddle the mint and lime. I love things with egg whites. I love the froth and the mouth feel. I feel like I was one of the first bartenders who tried to do something with egg whites. It took like five years until about 2010
What was the first thing that shocked you in Las Vegas?
The normal things that shock people didn’t shock me. People never follow through here. I came from a place where I could call 10 friends, watch TV and be early, thank you. Here it’s the opposite.
I’m the kind of person who wants to do things with co-workers. Just be honest and say, "I cant go." I’ll be there and people won’t show up. I’d rather people say, "I don’t like the club. I don’t want to go."
How often does the cocktail menu change here?
It’s seasonal. We might change it every four months or an aspect of it every so often. We are doing the same thing they are with the food.
How active are you in coming up with those new recipes?
Very active. I’m one of the three guys in this company responsible for that. There’s a collective that makes those decisions.
When you're not here, where are your favorite places to go get a drink?
I like my local bars in Henderson. The Fireside Lounge on Spencer and St. Rose. Various Mexican places like Lindo Michoacan. I like dive bars like Double Down Saloon. Mandarin Bar. Comme Ca in Cosmo. Lemongrass in Aria. I’m a huge fan of Thai food and theirs is spicy good. I try to make myself hallucinate. I go to the Palm after work to have a Jameson.
If someone's coming in to Spago for the first time, what should they order?
They have to try one of the classic Manhattans. Anything I’m working on behind the bar. Chef gives me an ingredient and I try that.