La dolce vita doesn’t always have to be sweet; sometimes a little bitterness makes it more interesting.
The scent of orange wafts up and tickles my nose as I take the first sip of my Negroni Antica Formula at luxury hotel Villa d’Este’s outdoor bar Caruso, overlooking Lake Como. The lake, greenish during the day, turns sapphire at twilight, and a crescent moon hangs in the sky. My husband, for purposes of comparison, has ordered a Negroni Normale, the traditional version of the classic Italian cocktail.
The Negroni is having a moment. The Italian aperitivo was created in Florence, Italy, just over a century ago, reportedly at the behest of a Count Negroni (which one, exactly, and whether he was actually a count is unclear), who wished the bartender to strengthen his Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth and soda) by replacing the soda with gin.
It’s a simple drink—the white button-down shirt of cocktails—calling for equal parts gin, red vermouth, and Campari over ice, sometimes with orange bitters, stirred, then garnished with a slice of orange. But that’s simply a jumping-off point for any number of variations, all with an underlying complexity that pleases the palate and a flavor that ranges from bitter to spicy to almost sweet, depending on the combination of ingredients and the bartender’s style.
Change up the gin, change up the vermouth, change up the Campari and use another amaro. Heck, change up the spirit altogether. The Sbagliato is a “broken” or “wrong” Negroni, made by replacing the gin with prosecco or other sparkling wine (spumante on Italian menus). It isn’t new but it’s currently trending on TikTok, thanks to British actor Emma D’Arcy of HBO’s House of Dragons fame declaring it her favorite drink.
Swapping bourbon or rye for gin produces a Boulevardier, named for the original metrosexuals: smooth dudes who strolled the boulevards of Paris and frequented fashionable cafes. The drink was a favorite of American in Paris Erskine Gwynne, publisher of The Boulevardier, a literary magazine that fancied itself a Parisian cousin of The New Yorker. In the 1927 edition of his book Barflies and Cocktails, bartender Harry McElhone, of Harry’s Bar fame, who decamped to Europe during Prohibition, credits Gwynne with this twist on the Negroni, made up of equal parts whiskey, sweet vermouth, and Campari or Aperol.
In Naples we had a Negroni made with mezcal, which adds a smoky touch. There are vodka Negronis (Negroski) and tequila Negronis; frozen strawberry, peach or blood orange Negronis; and white, or French, Negronis, made with gin, Suze, and Lillet Blanc.
Italians call the Negroni an aperitivo, a pre-dinner cocktail, but in three weeks of touring Italy we found it to be much more versatile.
As we wandered the streets of Milan on our first night, we saw Radetzsky and decide to stop in. It was aperitivo time, the Italian equivalent of happy hour, and it was packed with Italians and tourists alike enjoying some light drinks and snacks, typically olives, chips, fried mozzarella balls, or rich, salty nibbles like salami, prosciutto and Pecorino cheese. They served up a classic Negroni: Gordon’s gin, Carpano Classico, and Campari.
Want something lighter than a Negroni to go with your food? Order a Negroni spritz—the traditional Negroni lightened with sparkling water or club soda—which brings it full circle to the Americano. Perfect on a hot summer afternoon or warm evening after hiking the Cinque Terre.
But it’s not just a summer sip. In winter, a Negroni can become cozier by infusing vermouth for an hour with toasted spices; think cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and star anise. Stud the orange slice or twist with a couple of cloves for the perfect finishing touch.
At Fondazione Prada in Milan, a project that encompasses art, photography, architecture, cinema and more, Wes Anderson-designed Bar Luce is inspired by the typical Milanese café, but in mint-green and pink pastels. Formica furniture, a jukebox and pinball machines are a nod to Italian pop culture aesthetics of the 1950s and ‘60s, Anderson says in an interview posted on the museum’s website.
The afternoon we go, it’s inhabited by girls in black leather pants and midriff tops, a family of five, a blonde in a mini dress and black ankle socks and boots, a young couple with tea and espresso, and a pair of older couples at one of the tables outdoors. In other words, a cross-section of Milan’s population and tourist crowd. A cool waiter sporting rectangular black glasses, a bowtie, short hair, white shirt, and black pants brings us our classic Negronis, which we can have with an assortment of panini, foie gras, vegetarian plates or sweets.
At Villa d’Este, the difference in our two Negronis was the spicy vanilla flavor in mine, imparted by the Antica Formula vermouth. I use it at home when I make Negronis, rather than the typical Martini Rosso, with herbal and orange notes.
It was in Florence, the cocktail’s home, where we experienced the full range of Negronis. Our first stop was Manifattura, a bar that serves only Italian spirits. Our server, Tiziana, brought us three mini Negronis: the Manifattura, made with Gin Occitan, Fusetti Bitter, Opera Rossa Bitter, and Vermutte Carpano Classico Rosso; the Calabrese, with Gin Gil Torbato—made with peat-smoked juniper—Vermutte Rosso Antica Formula, and Bitter Gagliardo; and the Bianco Agrumato, with Gin Berto, Vermutte Misti, Bitter Bianco Luxardo, Genziana Borsi, and Cordial Lime.
At Caffe Gilli, which dates to 1733, bartender Luca Picchi, author of Negroni Cocktail: An Italian Legend and In the Footsteps of the Count created the Negroni del Centenario, celebrating the centennial of the cocktail with a three-step ritual: down a Negroni jelly shot, follow with a small glass of Perrier to cleanse the palate, then drink the Negroni, made with Bulldog gin, Campari bitter and Cinzano red vermouth.
“Why the jelly shot and Perrier?” I asked Picchi.
Over the very loud background of ice in shakers and people conversing at the bar, he explained that the jelly, sort of a molecular Negroni, was the result of two months of experimentation in their laboratory. “The jelly for me, it’s like a joke,” he says, something fun to serve alongside the drink. The Perrier is a nod to the old-style Negroni with a splash of soda. “It separates the past from the future.”
-Kim Campbell Thornton
Shaking Up Tradition
When it comes to Negronis, Stanley Tucci isn’t afraid to stir up a little controversy. The traditional version, of course, calls for equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. But in social media videos, Tucci, obviously familiar with the cocktail’s versatility, puts his own spin on it with a double shot of gin and a shot each of sweet vermouth—he likes Carpano Antica Formula—and Campari. The additional gin cuts the sweetness of the vermouth. (Tucci also notes that people who prefer vodka can substitute that, with a little gin on top for flavor, but for me that’s a step too far.)
This controversial take on the Negroni also involves shaking it with ice instead of building it over ice in the glass, adding a squeeze of juice from the orange slice garnish, and then serving it up in a coupe instead of in a tumbler with a large cube of ice.
Going further, he offers a variation that involves adding a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar to add a pop of flavor.
However you choose to mix your Negroni, have it with a plate of aperitivo while watching Tucci take you through Italy on his CNN show Searching For Italy, the streaming crime drama Inside Man or rewatching cult favorite Big Night for the umpteenth time. You can check out Tucci’s New York Times best-seller Taste: My Life Through Food, too.
Cin cin! -KCT