Lechon Asado and Ron Zacapa rum at Zafra Rum Bar, New Haven


As a boy, Abel Zekiel Ramirez would watch and wait.

He’d watch the big cruise ships come into port at Key West, Florida, then wait for their passengers to make wishes, tossing coins into the clear blue water. Ramirez would dive to save them as they fell, up to 30 feet for nickels and dimes. His parents were from Cuba, and back then, a penny alone could buy you several eggs or a handful of candy. How he spent those coins is anyone’s guess.

Ramirez kept watching ships come in and out of Key West, and eventually he left on one. In the 1920s, he served as a cook with the merchant marines. He ran around cramped corridors from the galleys to the captain’s table with scalding hot plates, yelling, “Hot stuff!” Soon enough, that refrain became his sea name.

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When he was 30 years old, back in Key West, Ramirez met a young runaway from West Virginia waitressing at a restaurant. Falling for her, he returned to that restaurant again and again until, several years on, they were living in a house on Eaton Street, Key West, with two sons and two daughters.

Many years down the line, in 2011, and many miles to the north, in New Haven, Ramirez’s grandson Dominick Splendorio opened Cuban rum bar and restaurant Zafra with his wife, Amanda, paying homage to his grandfather and his roots, and giving New Haven something different to swallow. When the Splendorios opened Zafra, there was no other bar in New Haven dedicated exclusively to rum. An average bar offers 12 to 15 kinds of rum, they say, while Zafra offers 275.

Striving for authenticity but also modernity, it’s hard to imagine a cubano walking into well-kept Zafra and mistaking it for an errant piece of Havana, though menus focus intensively on the large Caribbean island’s food and drink legacy. Before opening the restaurant, Dominick got as close to experiencing Cuban culture as he could without openly flouting international sanctions. He traveled to Miami and went to 75 different Cuban restaurants, returning with the essence of the cuisine and an enormous spectrum of rum to think about.

Indeed, by now, Dominick really knows his rum, even hosting University of New Haven students for courses on the stuff. Zafra offers tutorials with three tiers of tasting flights, each featuring three rum varieties; fly economy for $12, business-class for $14 and first-class for $25. If you really want to experience luxury, try a glass of the Pirate Cask 1623 for a cool $51.

Like many distilled liquors, a key variable in rum-making is the barrel in which the alcohol ferments. A bottle of Ron Zacapa, for example, is developed in barrels once used for American whisky, sherry and Pedro Ximenes—a pungent, plum-like wine popular in Spain. The result is a smooth, smoky-sweet rum that could be mistaken for a high-end scotch.

I’m told popular cocktails include the premium rum-based Millionaire Mojito ($11), the Daiquiri “Papa Hemingway” ($8)—a dry, grapefruit-heavy drink that the novelist, a diabetic, invented in Key West so as not to upset his blood sugar—and a traditional take on Brazil’s national cocktail, the Caipirinha ($8). Dominick invents and names some of the drinks himself, occasionally drawing from pop culture. There’s the fruity Captain Jack Sparrow ($10), mixing rum with pineapple, passionfruit and lime juices, plus Blue Curaçao and orgeat syrup (made from almonds, sugar and perfumed water). Release the Kraken! ($10), italics included, involves 96-proof spiced rum. “You gotta have fun,” Amanda says, and she doesn’t limit that maxim to just the drinks.

The Lechon Asado ($18.95)—the restaurant’s signature entrée—features beef marinated for two days in a special mojo sauce, then slow-roasted for six hours. The plate I ordered had thin cucumber halves arcing around the edges like dolphins, with plátanos maduros—ripe, and thus sweet, plantains—laying like tanners turned bronze on a white beach. In one corner rose a hill of beef, from which slivers of onion surveyed their four-sided island. I ate first with my eyes, and then with my mouth, and the landscape was worthwhile whichever way I crossed it.

For all the painstaking effort put into making Zafra’s menus deep and authentic, there’s some irony in the fact that the place still can’t legally offer Cuban-made rum. That’ll have to wait for another painstaking effort—the ongoing dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba that’s supposed to normalize economic relations—to resolve.

Then again, 275 rums, Cuban or not, ought to be good enough.

259 Orange St, New Haven (map)
Mon, Sun 4-10pm, Tues-Wed 11:30am-10pm, Thurs-Fri 11:30am-12am, Sat 4pm-12am
(203) 859-5342

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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