I thought I’d found the perfect cocktail. When I was 25, I attended a wedding in Northern Italy, near the groom’s hometown. The wedding was held in a stone church in a village by a lake. I explored tiny shops on winding streets where I ate gelato before the ceremony. I’d never felt cooler. I’d heard George Clooney got married on a lake in Italy. I imagined he also had gelato.
One of the highlights was a cocktail served that evening: a reddish drink over ice that came with a refreshing orange slice. A menu stated it was a Negroni—a famous drink from the area. My cocktail tastes had never grown beyond a rum and Coke, but apparently the region’s sophistication was rubbing off on me. I loved it. Campari, I learned later, dubbed it “the world connoisseur’s cocktail.” I returned home to New York ready to show off my newfound refinement.
Unfortunately, I could only find terrible Negronis in America. Every month or so, I’d try ordering my classy new drink with the same results: too bitter, too strong—not at all what I remembered. My palate, trained in Europe, was cursed with sophistication, I thought. After a year or so, I gave up hoping that any American bartender could make an even passable Negroni.
Some time later, a coworker asked to catch up over drinks. He was running late, and the downtown cocktail bar he had chosen was empty on this weekend afternoon. The bartender and I struck up a friendly conversation. When I ordered a beer, he said I should really try their cocktails. He pointed me to an entire menu dedicated to Negronis—their specialty. I awkwardly confessed that I had a mixed history with the drink. I could never find one quite like my first.
He nodded seriously. He had spent years studying the Negroni, had made thousands of them, and offered to help me sort this out. He asked about the one I had loved—the tastes, the smells, the citrus. Eventually, I used the term “effervescent.” He paused. “Are you talking about an Aperol Spritz?”
He began describing that drink, but I stopped him. No, no, I patiently corrected. It was definitely a Negroni, not some orange and soda mixer. I didn’t want to embarrass him—Negronis were clearly his passion—but I informed him that my first was actually on a trip to Northern Italy, where the drink was invented.
“That’s really interesting,” he told me while fixing a drink. “Because Negronis are from Florence. The Spritz is from Venice.” He handed me a glass and there it was: more pink than red, bubbly and just as delicious as I remembered. I thought about all the times I had wondered what it would take to find a good Negroni in the States. One that didn’t taste brooding and bitter, but instead like this bright and fruity juice The New York Times once compared to, “a Capri Sun after soccer practice,” and called “not a good drink.”
But none of that mattered. I finally knew how to order that drink I fell in love with in Italy. Negroni or not.
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Last Updated: June 6, 2023