Where there's smoke, there's "Great Balls of Fire."
A few years ago I spent a couple nights in a loud, raucous piano bar in the middle of San Antonio's River Walk cultural district, where a round-cheeked mulleted and mustachioed piano man happily obliged any and all requests.
Self-identified servicemen automatically got the Army or Navy fight song. (Both were played a lot; this was Texas, after all.) Virtually every other song was a call-and-response foot-stomper on the peanuts-covered floor, and the entertainer once managed a nearly half-hour version of "What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor." Beads garlanded the, um, generous women surrounding the piano, the Coors Light flowed like a waterfall, and the wall bore a sign reading, "IF YOU THROW PEANUTS ... WE THROW YOU OUT!"
In the years since I've been longing for such a place in Philly. Haven't found one.
Cascamorto, the new piano bar at 20th and Arch, isn't that bar either. But it ain't off to a bad start.
In place of San Antonio's rough wood walls and tables, Cascamorto boasts all-black decor and a long, snaking room, making it bigger than it feels. Accordingly, the beer selection is much larger than what you'd find at the average frat party.
To my surprise, one thing is the same: the smoke.
"We chose to do the nonfood smoking thing because we're one of the few in the city," says Melissa Soutar, one of Cascamorto's owners. "We get more smokers who love it than nonsmokers who can't stand it." The 3-month-old bar has a kitchen and caterer for private parties, but during prime hours the focus is on the booze and the tunes.
And what tunes they are.
A recent Friday night found ivory tickler Mike Margarite running down the old piano bar standbys: "Piano Man," "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," "Free Fallin'," "Sweet Caroline" and a mercifully abbreviated "American Pie." But he managed to sneak in a few surprises as well: Lyle Lovett ("She Makes Me Feel Good" and "Here I Am") was a pleasant surprise, as was Ben Folds' recent "Landed."
Not everyone among the diverse twentysomething-to-fiftysomething crowd is focused entirely on the music, but no one seems to mind either.
"People on the street are like, 'I don't care what kind of bar it is--I'm going there if you can smoke,'" adds Soutar.
Dancing is minimal but enthusiastic. "Oh my God, she's, like, rubbing her boob," my friend notes of one of the waitresses during "All Shook Up." The skinny women flanking the piano and constantly dropping requests occasionally get up to groove with each other--as they did on "Great Balls of Fire," among others--making it feel a bit like a gay bar without all the gay men.
Speaking of, Cascamorto's weekly showtune night begins Tues., Jan. 23.
Margarite is pretty good about taking requests and letting the assembled choir test out their pipes--a double-shot of "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "I've Got You Under My Skin" showed off an impressive Sinatra impersonator, while a Stevie Nicks wannabe made the beautiful classic "Landslide" sound like death. But my request for anything by Prince was met with only sad apologies. (Worth noting I got David Bowie instead: a hearty one-two punch of "Ziggy Stardust" and "Suffragette City," possibly the best songs of the night.)
"They can pretty much play anything that's requested," says Soutar. "Billy Joel and Elton John, yes, but some of them have been known to bust out Madonna and AC/DC."
How about some Irish drinking songs? A half-hour "Drunken Sailor," perhaps? Okay, maybe 15 minutes?