We all know that Italian food is delicious, and those of us who appreciate a good vintage also know there’s much to be said for Italian wines too. But what about Italian cocktails? This might be news to some, but Italy has a great tradition of drink-mixing. This should hardly be surprising: when it comes to ways of enjoying life, whether it’s eating, drinking, making music or creating art, Italians can be trusted to have researched the subject and contributed a few inventions or recipes. Not unlike food recipes, Italian cocktails are generally the product of regional taste and experimentation. There is, however, one tradition that has spread from the North to the whole Country and that is starting to become popular abroad as well: the aperitivo. The Italian word for “pre-dinner drinks” has become a universally accepted way of referring to a moment of self-indulgent relax, usually accompanied by alcoholic drinks, preceding a meal. If you are planning on giving an Italian twist to your next corporate event, you might want to try one or all of these Italian cocktails.
Some consider the spritz the true king of Italian cocktails and it is certainly a favourite in the North-East. Its origin is still being debated: practically every city north of Bologna will claim to have invented it and will offer you a slightly different recipe for it. No self-respecting aperitivo can start if there isn’t at least one glass of spritz on the table. The oldest story regarding this cocktail’s origin dates back to the Austrian occupation of Lombardy. Apparently the Austrian soldiers found Italian wine to be too strong for their taste and they applied to it the Teutonic tradition of turning everything into a “Schorle”, which is a blander, usually watered-down version of the original drink, obtained by adding sparkling water (or, as was the use of the age, soda) to it. The name “Spritz” is said to be derived from the german verb “spritzen”, meaning “to splash”, thus indicating that “a splash” of soda should be added to a glass of Prosecco. In the 20s, bitter soda drinks became popular, and the Spritz acquired its third, fundamental ingredient: Aperol soda. Spritz is the ultimate aperitivo drink, because it is ideally suited to accompany light finger food. At a pinch, you could keep drinking it with your seafood-based main dish, but avoid matching it with strong tastes such as roasted meat or lasagna.
This is one of the oldest and most widely appreciated Italian cocktails, which is slightly ironic. It originated in the late XIX Century in the North of the Country, most likely in Lombardy or Piedmont, allegedly to cater to the taste of international travellers that visited those regions. Much like the Austrians with their watering down of Prosecco, American tourists were understood to favour blander and sweeter drinks than the locals and to have a passion for soda. This cocktail was fashioned explicitly to please the kind of clientele that was used to drinking whisky and soda in old fashioned, ice-filled glasses. Since whisky was not particularly popular in Italy at that time, red vermouth was used instead, with added Bitter Campari and soda water, and a slice of orange to garnish. The Americano is not really meant to accompany food: its taste is too strong and rich to enhance any other flavour. However, if you are consuming it as part of an aperitivo or in a similar social occasion, you will find that it goes particularly well with dry and bland snacks such as breadsticks, peanuts or pretzels.
This cocktail is named after Count Camillo Negroni, a Tuscan nobleman, who is said to have invented it in the ’20s. The story of how the Negroni came to be has gone from anecdote to quasi-legend status over the course of a century. The Count is said to have been a patron of one of the most popular cafes in Florence, which, at that time, was popular among both Italian aristocrats and American tourists. The local barman catered to the international clientele by mixing the popular “Americano”. When Count Negroni took a trip to England, however, he developed a passion for gin and decided that the popular cocktail might benefit from a slight twist. He asked the bartender to add an equal measure of gin to the other ingredients in his Americano (Campari and sweet vermouth) and the resulting, bitter-sweet, pink-red cocktail became an instant success. From the original recipe, a number of variations have sprouted, the most popular of which is probably the so called “Negroni sbagliato” (bungled Negroni), which substitutes sparkling wine for gin. The strong, DRY taste of this cocktail makes it particularly suited to accompany strong, savoury food such as cheese or red meat.
It is uncommon to have such a precise account of how a cocktail came to be invented, and yet we know everything that there is to know about the Bellini. It was invented in 1948 in one of the best known bars in Venice: the Harrys. Its creator, Giuseppe Cipriani, later went on to invent another famous Italian recipe: the Carpaccio. This light, fruity, sweet cocktail – which falls more into the category of long drinks, since it only has one alcoholic ingredient – is made up of Prosecco wine and white peach purée. This is the original recipe, although the current and more popular version, which can be said to be a proper cocktail, includes a splash of peach brandy, to strengthen the mixture and enhance the flavour. The name, contrary to what many think, has nothing to do with the famous composer. The peculiar pinkish hue of the cocktail reminded Cipriani of the pink gown of a saint, painted by Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini, to which the drink was dedicated. In much the same way, the Carpaccio was named after the painter Vittore Carpaccio, because of the hues of red he used in his artworks reminded Cipriani of the colour of raw meat. If only to honour their creator, it is a good idea to taste these two recipes together.