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Originally published Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 7:02 PM

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Taste

For the love of cocktails

Seattle mixologist and his wife put their hearts into their drinks

ON THE EVE of Valentine's Day, when love is in the air, it seems only natural that we look for inspiration to Seattle mixologist A.J. Rathbun and his wife, Natalie Fuller, who began their love affair over drinks in Manhattan, Kan., and moved to Italy last fall to experience la dolce vita.

The romantic couple met while Rathbun was working his way through graduate school, waiting tables and bartending during summer break at the Hibachi Hut in the aforementioned Manhattan. Auntie Mae's, the bar where Fuller worked, was right up the street. It stayed open later than the Hut, so every evening after he knocked off work, Rathbun would head over to "Mae's" for some liquid refreshment.

Fuller "was the cutest bartender there," and got even better looking the more Rathbun threw back his beloved Italian Valiums ("IV's"), a cranium-crackin' concoction of equal parts Amaretto and Crown Royal.

"Myself and Joel, my summertime apartment-mate, drank a lot of Italian Valiums, with many made by Natalie," Rathbun remembers. "Naturally, after having a number of drinks made and poured by her for me, I fell for her."

After moving to Seattle, the young couple eventually married. They toiled for almost a dozen years — he in the Amazon.com pressure cooker as kitchen editor; she as a teacher, birth doula and naturalist. In his "spare time," Rathbun churned out a boatload of books, all published by The Harvard Common Press.

"Good Spirits: Recipes, Revelations, Refreshments, and Romance, Shaken and Served with a Twist" ($29.95), even won a big prize from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

To relax, the couple traveled to Italy, renting a villa and sometimes spending up to several weeks at a time there. Many of Rathbun's recipes were inspired by cocktails and meals enjoyed during their travels. Cocktails such as The Very Vernalagnia, which appears in "Champagne Cocktails: 50 Cork-Popping Concoctions & Scintillating Sparklers" ($12.95), published in 2010. The recipe title translates as "something similar to spring fever — or a romantic mood brought on by spring." Or Valentine's Day.

Straight bubbly is dandy, but not the most creative option for prospective party-givers, Rathbun told me.

"If they want their affair to really stand out from the party pack, then serving a signature sparkling cocktail or two is a much more exciting choice," he says. "I thought that a book that had an assortment of Champagne and sparkling-wine cocktails, from classics to modern marvels to punches, would be a great aid to the prospective host or hostess."

Another of Rathbun's 2010 releases, "In Their Cups: Poems About Drinking Places, Drinks, and Drinkers" ($9.95), would be a fun book to read with your lover. The pocket-size poetry anthology comprises verses from John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Ed Skoog and Rathbun (himself a published poet with an MFA from Western Michigan University).

Thanks to royalties from all Rathbun's tomes, plus savings from their day jobs, Rathbun and Fuller were determined to add another romantic chapter to their lives. They referred to it as "pre-tirement" — an extended stay in Italy with their two 80-pound dogs, Rory and Sookie. And they planned to blog about it.

They broke the news to family and friends, and put aside enough of their savings to support themselves for six months. Finally, they quit their jobs, all the while knowing they'd have to return to work once back stateside in April.

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A typical idyllic day at their villa in the Niccone Valley begins by "taking the dogs out, feeding the dogs, walking the dogs," Rathbun says. "Then we write blogs (hah!). No, we do a variety of things: Either we go to the markets or visit a small hill town we've never been to; or make a big dinner and Italian-inspired cocktails; or read, write and paint; or have a long lunch with our Italian landlords; or drive a ways farther down the road to Pistoia to visit pals Caterina, Emanuele and Emiliano; or drive to Assisi to look for gelato; or go visit our favorite local winery, Domini, to talk to owner Diego about the new bottling; or slip down the hill to Bar Fizz for a Quattro Formaggi con Cipolla Pizza; or just drive into Umbertide to stop at Bar Pina for a Campari."

So la dolce vita is real?

"It is, I believe. For me, it all revolves around enjoying life: sipping wine slowly while the sun goes down while snacking on a pastry or some pecorino and talking with good friends."

Cin cin to lovers everywhere.

Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author, food and wine columnist and blogger. Visit her online at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com.

The Very Vernalagnia

Serves 2

Ice cubes

2 ounces brandy

1 ounce anisette

4 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters*

8 ounces chilled cava (white or rosé)

2 lemon slices for garnish (optional)

1. Fill a mixing glass halfway full with ice cubes. Add the brandy, anisette and bitters. Using a long spoon, stir well.

2. Strain equally into two flute glasses. Top each with the cava, and garnish with a lemon slice if desired. Serve immediately.

* Available at DeLaurenti Specialty Food & Wine in Pike Place Market

— Recipe from "Champagne Cocktails: 50 Cork-Popping Concoctions & Scintillating Sparklers"

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