Fuma Bella should be the model for all cocktail lounges. The Ybor City bar near New World Brewery is smaller and more full of laughter and overall joviality than most living rooms. As its name implies, Fuma Bella also features plenty of beautiful blue smoke that, rather magically, lingers in the air without offending the senses.
"How are you doing, Charlie?" I asked upon reaching the little wooden counter.
"Couldn't be better, Wade," he responded with a smile.
Charlie is in his early 40s, has dark, bushy hair and the paunch of a man who enjoys cooking and his fair share of libations. I only know Charlie from my occasional stops at Fuma Bella over the years. But he has always struck me as a fair and decent person. I also consider him the best bartender in town.
"What'll be?" Charlie asked.
"Surprise me," I said.
I studied Charlie as he carefully made my drink. First, he placed fresh blueberries at the bottom of a glass and methodically muddled them. He then mixed rye whiskey, bourbon, blood orange bitters and a squirt of ginger ale. A fresh slice of orange garnished the cocktail.
I took a sip. And then another.
"This is excellent, excellent," I said, genuinely awed by the anonymous concoction.
"It's the blueberries; they're in season," Charlie said. "They are also great as a marinade on a chicken thigh — and the blood orange bitters make for a great pound cake."
People ranging in age from 20s to 50s occupied the six comfy bar stools. These were working-class people. Off-the-clock servers make up much of the bar's clientele. By the time I left around midnight about two dozen friendly people covered nearly every square foot of Fuma Bella.
Charlie has helmed the hole-in-the-wall establishment since it opened in March 1998. He declined to give his last name for this column. Charlie would prefer I not write about his beloved bar at all. To appease him, and, equally important, to be welcomed back again, I promised to inform readers that not any and all are welcome.
Fuma Bella serves cocktails. They are the finest, cheapest and strongest in Ybor City — perhaps all of Tampa Bay. But these are drinks intended for people who know how to hold their liquor. Customers who would even consider ordering an obnoxious vodka and energy drink combo are not wanted. More important, Charlie only wants patrons who come to have intelligent, or at least civil, conversation — not start fights or spit gimmicky routines from The Game. It's that modus operandi that has kept the same customers gratefully returning to Fuma Bella for more than a decade.
"My job is to make a great, or at least a better, night for people," Charlie said. "It's my job to offer someone a sympathetic ear.
"If you know Fuma Bella, you know it," he added. "If not, move along."
Before I left, a young man with a shaggy beard sat down next to me at the bar. His Hawaiian lei had a bright, blinking red light on it. Charlie took one look at the annoying distraction and shook his head.
"Please, turn that off now," Charlie said in a level voice.
The guy did. Immediately. And then apologized profusely.
"What can I get you to drink?" Charlie then asked him kindly.
What's your favorite drinking destination? Contact Barfly columnist Wade Tatangelo at [email protected] hotmail.com.