When it comes to living La Dolce Vita, Italians have it figured out. Consider the practice of L’ora Del Aperitivo. Come the end of the workday, bars across the country set out plates of snacks for patrons to enjoy while sipping cocktails. With the golden light and Italy’s cinematic backdrop, It’s the most glamorous sort of happy hour.
But you don’t have to necessarily travel all the way across the pond to experience aperitivo culture. Bars across America are adopting a slate of iconic Italian cocktails; the Negroni and Aperol Spritz have nearly canon in cocktail culture. And it’s easy to see why: Most of these drinks are decidedly non-fussy (a simple stir over ice will do) and low in alcohol.
The backbone of many Italian cocktails are aperitivos or amaros, bittersweet liqueurs made of proprietary mixes of herbs, spices and fruit (think: Campari, Aperol, or Meletti Amaro). And complexity of these are in part, what makes Italian cocktail making so easy. Once the procurement of a bottle is done, a cocktail needn’t be more than adding a splash of soda water and a slice of orange, or simply pouring over ice.
One of the greatest Italian cocktails is the Negroni, made from equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. With a bittersweet, herbal backbone, the Negroni balances on a fine line, managing to be both strong and appetite-whetting. Though decidedly not low-alcohol, it works well as an aperitivo, to kickstart a meal, and digestivo, to close the night out.
The simple Negroni template also serves as a launching point for a host of delicious cocktails. The Americano (not to be confused with the coffee beverage), swaps in soda water for gin, to make a light, refreshing day drinker. The Negroni Sbagliato (recipe below), made with Prosecco instead of gin, turns the formula into a spritzy, celebratory toast. More modern twists (if not exactly Italian in origin) on the Negroni recipe include the Boulevardier (swapping Bourbon for gin), or the Old Pal (rye whiskey for gin).
Campari also makes the backbone of a host of lesser known, but deeply worthy Italian cocktails. The Garibaldi, a sunny, simple mix of Campari and orange juice over ice, works best with freshly-squeezed juice, and can easily be spritzified with the addition of Prosecco. The Bicicletta, made with Campari, dry white wine and soda water, that dates to the mid 1930s, supposedly takes its name from the mode of transportation used to get home after a visit to the local bar. And for hardcore Campari fans, the Campari Shakerato, couldn’t be more simple: a shake of Campari in a mixing tin with ice, and strained into a glass.
If you’re playing around at home, one easy way to upgrade your Negroni (or any of its cousins) is to splurge on high-end sweet vermouth. Labels such as Carpano Antica or Punt e Mes will add a deeper complexity to your drink. Or look for some of the more esoteric Italian amaros, such as Ramazotti or Braulio. And if you’re in the mood to experiment, a host of new American-made amaros make an intriguing taste-test alongside the iconic Italian choices. Look for St. George Spirit’s Bruto Americano or Margerum Amaro.
The word “sbagliato,” appended here to the name of a classic cocktail, translates to “incorrect” or “mistaken.” Not so. With
prosecco in place of the Negroni’s traditional gin, this spritzy beverage makes for a buoyantly bitter Italian apertivo.
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. sweet vermouth
Prosecco (or any sparkling wine)
Garnish: orange peel
In a rocks or lowball glass, add Campari, sweet vermouth, and ice. Top with pro- secco or sparkling wine and stir gently to combine. Garnish with an orange peel. Serves 1.
This bubbly Venetian day drinker has made major inroads on American bar menus of late, and it’s easy to see why— the easy-breezy spritz translates well to garden parties and sunset pau hanas. Bonus: It’s the prettiest pink color.
2 oz. Aperol
3 oz. Prosecco, or sparkling wine
Garnish: orange slice
In a highball or wine glass, add the Aperol, Prosecco and a splash of soda water. Top with ice. Use a bar spoon to mix and garnish with an orange slice. Serves 1.
Negroni Sbagliato recipe: Reprinted with permission from The Essential Bar Book, by Jennifer Fiedler, copyright 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC.