3 Italian Cities, 3 Iconic Drinks, 1 Writer to Try Them All

When in Italy, do as the Italians do: aperitivo.

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Milan moments at Bar Basso during aperitivo hour.

Photo by Federico Ciamei

Every evening around 7 p.m., an apricot-colored glow spreads steadily across the Piazza San Marco, Venice’s famous central square. It emanates not so much from the setting sun as from oversize glasses filled with the orange-hued beverage known as the Aperol Spritz, which proliferate at this time of day—recognized throughout Italy as aperitivo hour. For a time, during the loneliest years of the pandemic, those orange orbs were sparse. Now they are back in force, because for the gazillions of tourists who are again flooding the city like a human version of acqua alta, Venice’s legendary high tides, aperitivo means one thing: an Aperol Spritz.

The word “aperitivo” (or aperitivi in the plural) refers both to a drink and to a daily ritual that takes place from roughly 7 to 9 p.m. It comes from the Latin aperire, meaning to open—as in, to open the appetite—and it usually involves a few salty (and free) snacks and a glass of something alcoholic. For Italians, the aperitivo is a fiercely protected tradition, a social ritual with a primary purpose: to bridge the transition from day to evening while ensuring no one gets too hungry, or thirsty, while waiting for dinner. Although there are regional variations on the theme, three drinks each associated with a different Italian city and each gilded with legend—have become classics.

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Left: Olives are a key part of the snack ritual. Right: The bar’s aperitivo spread.

Photos by Federico Ciamei

Milan’s cocktail king

The Americano—a mix of Campari, sweet vermouth, and a splash of soda water—is the oldest of the aperitivo triumvirate. In the 1860s, bartender Gaspare Campari invented his namesake liqueur, an infusion of bitter herbs, aromatic plants, and citrus. At his Milanese bar, Caffè Campari, Gaspare began mixing the liqueur with vermouth from nearby Turin and served the drink under the name Milano-Torino.

Some 70 years later, an unknown soul decided to add soda water to the mix, and the Americano was born. The name might be a nod to the Italian boxer Primo Carnera, who, after winning a world championship in New York in 1933, was dubbed “L’Americano.” Or it might hail from a Milan bar where, in the 1930s, American tourists asked for a lighter take on the Milano-Torino. As with so much in the world of cocktails, opinions differ. You can debate it all at Caffè Campari, which still traffics in the Milano-Torino (and the Americano), 160 years later. But when I asked a few Milanese locals where I should go for an aperitivo, they all said the same thing: Bar Basso.

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The goblets are big and the Americanos strong.

Photo by Federico Ciamei

At 7 p.m. on a Saturday, Bar Basso is hopping—quite a feat for a place whose brocade walls, faded velvet chairs, and black-vested waiters were the height of fashion when the spot was founded in 1947. I manage to find a seat among the families and groups of friends who crowd around tables that quickly fill with plates of fat olives, oily focaccia, and mini tuna sandwiches.

Mirko Stocchetto bought Bar Basso from its founder in 1967. At the time, bars in Milan still had a somewhat seamy reputation, but Mirko had learned the trade in his native Venice, where he worked at the iconic Harry’s Bar. Back then, Venetian bars had a more polished sheen, explains Mirko’s son, Maurizio, who now owns Basso.

“Thanks to the movie Roman Holiday, Americans had started to come,” Maurizio says. “It was the time of La Dolce Vita, of Peggy Guggenheim, and you had all these jet-setters arriving. Americans were high rollers and heavy drinkers, and they liked their cocktails.”

Mirko set about bringing that glamorous cocktail culture to Milan. Good Venetian that he was, he designed glassware—enormous goblets, short-stemmed coupes, simple chalices—to upgrade his cocktails. Each day, he hauled blocks of ice from the city icehouse using a three-wheeled motorbike with a platform attached. “They’d use electric saws to cut the ice,” Maurizio says. “If you came in the morning for coffee, the place sounded like a carpentry shop.”

Mirko’s efforts paid off. Today, Bar Basso has a citywide reputation and a 500-plus cocktail list. Purist that I am, I stick with the Americano. It arrives in a tall, stemmed glass, garnished with half an orange slice, and is as bitter and bracing as I imagine it was nearly a century ago.

Florence’s spirited spin

Negronis are as crisp as Americanos—but they’ll get you drunker quicker. For that, we can thank a Florence-based count (or purported count) named Camillo Negroni. It was 1919, World War I had just ended, the Spanish influenza was raging, and the count— legend holds—needed a stiff drink. So, at a bar in Florence, he asked for a splash of gin in his Milano-Torino.

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Director Orson Welles, a fan of the Negroni (pictured), once said: “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.”

Photo by Federico Ciamei

Until relatively recently, Florence’s Negroni standard-bearer was Caffè Giacosa, founded in 1815. After Giacosa closed in 2017, that title switched to Caffè Lietta, which opened in 2019 with some of Giacosa’s staff.

Caffè Lietta bartender Martina del Sordo once worked for another Florence institution, Rivoire. With her tattoos and bright red lips, she doesn’t look like a traditional Florentine bartender. But after many years at Rivoire and three more now at Lietta, she knows how to achieve the perfect balance between the vermouth, Campari, and gin—and she would never swap the classic orange-slice garnish for that newfangled abomination, a strip of orange peel. Nevertheless, she is alert to the cocktail’s exquisite sensitivity. “You’ll never have the same Negroni twice,” Martina says. “It all depends on the hand of the bartender.”

With that, Fabiano Buffolino would agree. Co-owner and visionary behind Manifattura, a cult Florence cocktail bar, Fabiano has created a drink menu that couldn’t be more modern but still manages to pay homage to Italy’s spirited past. In fact, he and his team—clad in classic white bartender coats—do extensive research, revive old spirits, and seek out well-made versions of new, local ones. “This is a bar where we talk about Italianity, and that means we only serve Italian bottles,” Fabiano explains.

Those self-imposed limits have opened a whole new world of possibilities. They’ve led him, for example, to seek out special spirits—such as a juniper and bergamot liqueur he found in Calabria—that are clear expressions of the terroir that produces them. “We’re looking for that point between tradition and innovation,” he says, and when it comes to aperitivi, “it’s not enough to just serve Campari and sodas.”

Fabiano makes me a Negroni with peated gin and bitters so intense they make Campari taste like a lollipop in comparison. “The Negroni offers endless combinations,” he says. “But if someone comes in and asks for the classic [version], we’re winning.”

Venice’s polarizing spritz

Fabiano’s words follow me to Venice. The city is home to its own classic cocktail, the Bellini, a luscious mix of peach nectar and pro secco. But the Aperol Spritz—a blend of prosecco, soda water, and bitter, orange-hued Aperol, garnished with a green olive and an orange slice—has become so heavily favored among the visitors who flock here that I see signs of a backlash in bars in the less touristed parts of town. Literally. (WE DON’T SERVE ANY F***ING APEROL SPRITZES, reads one.)

To me, there’s nothing wrong with the drink itself. It has its own long history: Spritzes, in the form of white or sparkling wine and soda, were introduced to Venice during World War I. Aperol, which was invented in neighboring Padua just as the war was ending, probably seemed an obvious addition. What seems to irk the Venetians is both the Instagram-fueled association between the drink and mass tourism itself, and the way that Campari’s sustained advertising campaign has made it difficult for independent producers to gain traction. (Over the years, the company has acquired smaller alcohol producers, including Aperol and Cynar, an artichoke-based bitter liqueur also used in spritzes.)

“When I was young, we only drank prosecco for an aperitivo,” says Stefano Munari, gesturing at the dozens of tables around the Piazza San Marco. “And Campari was just something old people drank. Now, look around: It’s just orange, orange, orange.”

Stefano is the manager of fine dining at Gran Caffè Quadri, one of the oldest cafés in the central square. It’s been in business under that name since 1775, but about a decade ago, the establishment was taken over by brothers Massimiliano and Raffaele Alajmo, an acclaimed chef and restaurateur, respectively, and its opulent interior was restored by designer Philippe Starck. As a consummate hospitality professional, Stefano takes a tolerant approach to the Aperol Spritz—give the customers what they want, after all—and has been known to occasionally drink one, sans olive, himself.

I would normally shun the cafés in Piazza San Marco, with their overpriced, multilingual menus and cheesy bands cranking out pop classics. But I am also a consummate professional, so in the name of research, I take a table at Gran Caffè Quadri and order an Aperol Spritz. It’s . . . fine. Yet sitting there, bathed in the sunset glow reflecting off the Basilica and watching Italian families strolling past on their way to their own aperitivi, I am seduced nonetheless. When my glass is empty, I order another drink. Although this time, I make it a Bellini.

Lisa Abend is a journalist based in Madrid and the author of The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià's elBulli. She is also a contributing writer at AFAR and correspondent for Time magazine.
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