February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Return of the spirits

By |2018-03-21T18:58:42+01:00December 31st, 2013|"In Cucina"|
Detail from a 1920s poster for Cinzano by Todoquato: sex appeal was a key selling point.

n its May 1806 issue, a Hudson, New York publication called the Balance and Columbian Repository replied to a reader’s question by defining the cocktail as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

Italy’s role in cocktail history came well over a century later, fueled by the country’s post-World War II boom. The Italian urban lifestyle of the 1950s — seen in terms of luxury fashion, fast cars and hearty food — helped dictate Western fads, with appealing cocktails a part of the equation. Italian brands became household names.

But as wine culture grew, cocktails fell out of favor, booming instead in the UK and the United States. Now, blame it on “Mad Men”-mania or a trendy new interest in London-style bartending, cocktails are making an Italian comeback as part of a social drinking craze.

The revived lust for cocktails tends to obscure Italy’s on mixology, the worldwide art of mixing drinks. Considering the number of Italian staples, it shouldn’t.

Americano: Despite its name, this is an all-Italian cocktail, composed of Campari, sweet vermouth, and club soda. It was first served at Caffè Campari in the 1860s and known as the “Milano-Torino” for the origin of its ingredients. Campari, the bitter crimson liqueur, is from Milan while Cinzano vermouth is native to Turin. One possible reason for the colloquial moniker was the American success of Italian-born boxer Primo Carnera, a heavyweight champion in the 1930s.

Sgroppino: If an Americano is the best way to start an Italian evening, a Sgroppino is an ideal way to finish off a sumptuous meal without entering digestivo territory. The palate-cleansing sgroppino blends Prosecco, lemon sorbet and vodka, and can perfectly offset the likes of stewed oxtail and braised artichokes.

Bellini: Created by Harry’s Bar founder Giuseppe Cipriani, the Venice-made Bellini owes its delicate flavor to pureed peach and prosecco. The pairing was christened Bellini to honor the colors used by Renaissance artist and Venice native Giovanni Bellini. Prosecco’s sturdy bubbles hold up well against the fruit’s audacious pulp. For that reason, purists advise against using vintage champagne, since it tends to have far smaller bubbles.

Spritz: The drink dates back to the Austro-Hungarian occupation of northeastern Italy. The foreign incumbents, in an attempt to lighten wine — regarding it as perhaps too strong — diluted it with water. The battling Veneto folk, to restore wine’s dignity, responded by adding liquor to the new Hapsburg spritz. That’s how the Spritz cocktail got its start and its Austrian name, which roughly translates to injection/addition. Italian Spritz is made with 40 percent dry white wine, 30 percent soda water and 30 percent Aperol — or Campari, which is a bit too bitter for my happy-hour palate. I prefer Spritz made with classic Aperol, which lends the drink a sweet yet peppery oomph.

Negroni: Served in a Collins glass, this classic is named after Florentine Count Camillo Negroni, and is made with equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari. In 1919, Count Camillo asked the bartender at Florence’s Caffè Casoni to strengthen his favorite cocktail, the Americano, by replacing the soda water with gin. Orson Welles later raved, “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.”

Negroni Sbagliato: While its name literally means “Wrong Negroni,” this fabulous cocktail leaves nothing to doubt. Negroni’s Gin is replaced with Prosecco, making the drink slightly fizzy, refreshing and lighter.

Other variations include the “Negroski” (vodka instead of gin) and the “Cardinaloski” (a Negroski with a few angostura drops). The “Punt e Mes Negroni” replaces the standard red vermouth with the distinctively more bitter-tasting Punt e Mes. In the “Cin Cyn,” Cynar artichoke-based liqueur replaces Campari; in the “Raultini,” it’s replaced Aperol. The “Pinkish Negroni” switches out gin for rosé wine while the “Boulevardier” puts bourbon in its place.

If you can’t make it to Venice for a Bellini or a Spritz or Milan is too far to travel for a perfect Negroni, Rome can bring relief. You just need to know where to go. My friends and cocktail authorities Gillian McGuire, Arlene Gibbs and Elizabeth Minchilli all pointed me in the right direction.

Here’s my shortlist of a few haunts where the best cocktails are masterfully mixed in the Eternal City.

Pierluigi is a stalwart restaurant located near Piazza Farnese that serves especially fine seafood. But prosecco pundits rave about bartender Fabrizio. He’s just as adept with Negronis, Bloody Marys, Passion Fruit Cosmos, Mint Juleps, and Margaritas. According to my sources, Fabrizio also mixes a terrific Sazerac by smoking the absynthe leaves and using Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Outdoor veranda and moonlight do the rest. • Pierluigi Piazza dé Ricci, 144. Tel. +39.06. 686.1302 | Open Tues.-Sun.

Barnum Cafè Though daringly close to touristy Piazza Campo de’ Fiori, Barnum is hipsterish and low-key with mismatched chairs and tables, gritty walls and vintage wall art. Its bartenders are top notch. The G&T comes with a crisp cucumber curl and the Margarita above average by Rome standards. There’s also a vast choice of gins and tequilas. Bartenders Patrick and Federico prepare both classic by-the-book cocktails as well as more extravagant mixtures. Other plusses include free wi-fi, child-friendly ambiance and pretty good food. • Barnum Cafè Via del Pellegrino, 87. Tel. +39.06.6476.0483 | Open Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-2 a.m.

Misceliamo Watching a St. Peter’s sunset is perfect on the 360-terrace of the First Luxury Hotel near Trinità dei Monti above the Spanish Steps. Signature cocktails include “Croccante all’Amarena,” which draws inspiration from a 1970s gelato (chocolate, vodka, brown sugar, heavy cream, cherry and hazelnut reduction) and the delightful “Sweet Manhattan” (whiskey, red vermouth, homemade bitter and wild sour cherries). Honorable mention goes to the “Tini Rocket,” a vodka Martini with Nashi pear, arugula, fresh cirtus fruits, maple syrup and ginger. Those familiar with Executive Chef Riccardo Di Giacinto (of Michelin star fame and the genius behind All’Oro) will also appreciate the fine dining. • Misceliamo Via del Vantaggio, 14. Tel. + 39.06. 9799.6907 | Open daily 7 p.m.-1 a.m.

JK Place The posh bar of the JK Place Hotel invites guests into plush armchairs where they can order well-executed Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Pimm’s Cups and Vodka Martinis. My experts say the drinks can fall on the sweet side. You can always ask the mixologist behind the counter to create a custom cocktail. • JK Place Via di Monte d’Oro, 30. Tel. +39.06.982634 | Open daily.

Stravinskij Bar The Hotel De Russie’s gem-of-a-bar is a perfect spot for romantic cocktails. Inside are exquisite purple armchairs, outside stunning courtyard. Treat yourself to the signature De Russie Martini, the delicious “Negrill” (tequila, lime juice, pineapple pulp and cranberry) or head’s up “Castro Street” (Campari, cucumber slices and Cynar). Although nibbling on canapées, fruit cubes and spoonfuls of caviar can cost a mint, the garden’s breathtaking beauty and the sound of bells pealing from the churches of adjacent Piazza del Popolo are priceless. • Stravinskij Bar Via del Babuino, 9. Tel. +39.06.3288.8874 | Open daily 9 a.m.-1 a.m.

Bar at Hotel Locarno Amid velvet and beautifully faded brocades in winter, guests in the main bar can sip their drinks by the fireplace or the piano. There’s also a splendid terrace with an enchanting rooftop view of the city. The ground floor courtyard is secluded and great for secrets. The drinks are twists on classic cocktails, including the delightful-sounding whisky sour topped with grated Calabrian licorice. • Bar at Hotel Locarno Via della Penna, 22. Tel. +39.06.361.0841 | Open daily.

Etablì The minimalist Proveçal hangout is romantic in winter (a blazing fireplace and worn-in leather sofas) and bohemian chic in summer. It’s perfect for sipping Moscow Mules while sitting on strangers’ Vespas and flirting with the locals. Great tapas and free wi-fi are supplemented by live music on Thursday. There’s usually a book signing or a photo/art exhibit. • Etablì Vicolo delle Vacche, 9. Tel. +39.06.9761.6694 | Open Mon-Sat 6:30 p.m.-1 a.m.

Baccano Near the Trevi fountain, Baccano is a solid stop. They make good martinis, an excellent Old Fashioned (with Maker’s Mark), and Spritz mixed with either sambuca or passion fruit. The pasta with butter and anchovies is worth the visit, and I’m told even the burgers are good. There’s free wi-fi, and (highly coveted) discount customer parking. • Baccano Via delle Muratte, 23. Tel. +39.06.6994.1166 | Open daily 10 a.m.-1 a.m.

Massimo Riccioli Bistrot Star mixologist Emanuele Broccatelli has an impressive CV: Corinthias in London, the Caffè Propaganda at the Coliseum, and the newly-opened Stazione di Posta restaurant in Testaccio. Broccatelli recently landed at the Hotel Majestic, where Massimo Riccioli of Ristorante La Rosetta has charge of the kitchen. So while slurping Riccioli’s famed oysters, you can also sip on Broccatelli’s elegant creations at the Majestic bar. Among them you’ll find the “Hanky Panky Savoy,” a 50/50 gin and Carpano classic spiked with Fernet Branca; the “The Big Hope,” a refreshing after dinner drink with Bourbon, mint liqueur and chocolate; and the “Sweet Dreams Cocktail,” which evokes merenda memories with its distinctive butterscotch, hazelnut and candied orange flavors. Massimo Riccioli Bistrot Via Vittorio Veneto, 50. Tel. +39.06.4214.4715 | Open Mon.-Saturday.


About the Author:

Eleonora Baldwin lives in Rome dividing her time between food and lifestyle writing, hosting prime-time TV shows, and designing Italian culinary adventures. She is the author of popular blogs Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino and Casa Mia Italy Food & Wine.