In Milan, Giving the Aperitivo a New Twist

To understand how central the aperitivo is to Milan culture, you need only stand in the middle of the Piazza del Duomo, the city’s pulsing center, and face the cathedral. To your right you’ll see a huge version of the Martini vermouth logo glowing atop a modest skyscraper in nearby Piazza Armando Diaz. At its top is the rooftop bar Terrazza Martini. There, Martini’s various vermouths are poured into everything from Americanos to Manhattans.

To the left, mere steps from the cathedral, you’ll see the three-story arched entrance to the century-old Camparino in Galleria. Camparino is the home bar for Campari, the bittersweet liqueur that is Milan’s pride and joy. And Campari and more Campari is what is served inside. A few feet away and one story up is the Terrazza Aperol (Aperol and Campari are owned by the same company), dedicated to the namesake liqueur, where the color scheme is orange, not red. There, instead of a French 75 or Bloody Mary, you can order an Aperol 75 or Aperol Mary.

At Camparino, the home bar for Campari, Tommaso Cecca prepares a Compadre, made with mezcal, Chiotto liqueur, agave syrup, sweet vermouth, bitters and, of course, Campari.Credit…Andrea Wyner for The New York Times
A bartender puts the finishing touch on a Campari Shakerato (Campari, all shook up).Credit…Andrea Wyner for The New York Times

The aperitivo hour — which lasts a few hours, really, from late afternoon to early evening — is as intrinsic to Milan life as fashion and “The Last Supper.” The centerpiece of this light, breezy repast is an appetite-stimulating libation, typically light in alcohol and usually vibrant in color. There are several options, though they all dwell in the same neighborhood. There’s the spritz (the bittersweet liqueur of your choice, wine and soda water), the Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, soda water), the Milano Torinos (just Campari and sweet vermouth) and the Campari Shakerato (Campari, all shook up). But not every aperitivo-hour drink is a lightweight. The trendy Negroni, which is nothing but booze (gin, sweet vermouth, Campari), and the even-trendier Negroni Sbagliato (sweet vermouth, Campari and Prosecco), are widely popular.

The drinks are almost always accompanied by a few snacks such as olives, potato chips, charcuterie, nuts or crostini. The idea is that everything should be the work of a single bite. You sip, you nibble, you talk; repeat. This ritual is practiced thousands of times at hundreds of places in Milan every day.

Mandarin Garden, the bar at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, serves snacks with its Italian Beauty cocktail, which includes St. Germain, Aperol, lemon juice and Champagne.Credit…Andrea Wyner for The New York Times
At Bar Basso, a patron sips from a Negroni Sbagliato, made with Prosecco rather than the usual gin.Credit…Andrea Wyner for The New York Times

“For Milanese people, and in general for Italian people, the aperitivo is a true ritual,” said Guglielmo Miriello, the director of the Mandarin Garden, the bar inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Milan. After a time when mojitos, Moscow mules, and gin and tonics dominated, “now, there is a return to the great classics, such as the Negroni and the bittersweet cocktails,” he said.

Right now, the Milan drinking scene is simultaneously old-fashioned and au courant. That’s because the world has caught up to Milan’s lighter, more bitter style of drinking (or backtracked, depending on how you look at it). A host of trends have brought this about. First, there’s the ever-growing thirst for the century-old Negroni, a rebirth generated by the craft cocktail revival. Sip a Negroni and you are both enjoying one of the oldest classic cocktails and one of the hottest drinks around. Then, there’s the public’s recent embrace of drinks that have a lower alcohol level. (The nonalcoholic cocktail trend has reached Milan as well and you can now get zero-alcohol versions of the sacred Negroni at many places.)

And then there’s the fevered enthusiasm the Negroni Sbagliato is currently enjoying. For decades, this cocktail was primarily known and consumed by Italians and cocktail geeks. Then, last year, it rocketed to global fame via a viral video in which the “House of Dragons” star Emma D’Arcy stated it was their favorite drink. Now the globe clamors for Negroni Sbagliatos.

“In the last few years, the demand for gin has increased,” said Maurizio Stocchetto, an owner of Bar Basso, the birthplace of the Negroni Sbagliato. “So has the demand for Campari and Aperol Spritz and for the Negroni Sbagliato.”

At Bar Basso, Negronis arrive in foot-tall plastic wine glasses.Credit…Andrea Wyner for The New York Times

Bar Basso vies with Camparino as the city’s most famous aperitivo destination. The two most popular cocktails there come in sizes Large and Enormous. The Negroni Sbagliato is served in a goblet that would make a decent home for a goldfish. The Negroni arrives in a foot-tall plastic wine glass that looks like something Gulliver might have encountered in Brobdingnag. The story goes that the owner Mirko Stocchetto (Maurizio’s father) accidentally created the Sbagliato when, while preparing a Negroni, he grabbed a bottle of wine instead of gin. (“Sbagliato” means “mistaken.”)

Still, Milanese bar owners are trying to broaden the array of beverages that are consumed during aperitivo hour. Mr. Miriello offers an original drink called the Italian Beauty which contains St. Germain, Aperol, lemon juice and Champagne.

When you ask Domenico Carella, an owner of the cocktail bar Cà-Ri-Co, what the most popular cocktails in Milan are, he ticks off the usual list: Milano Tornino, Aperol Spritz, etc. Armed with that information, when the bar decided to open a second, smaller bar inside Cà-Ri-Co in September 2021, they naturally dedicated it to the martini.

At the Martini Room, guests can book time at the horseshoe-shaped bar in 30-, 60-, or 90-minute increments. The price of admission gets you access to the “martini free flow,” as the menu puts it, and accompanying bites. Though Mr. Carella personally considers the martini an apertivo-style drink, he knows he is in the minority. “Italians prefers bitter stuff, bitter or vermouth, lower-A.B.V. are always the favorite choice,” he said, using industry shorthand for drinks that contain lower alcohol by volume. Still, he’s not worried he opened the Martini Room in the wrong city. In 2022, he sold 5,000 martinis, he said.

You have to be personally invited to drink at the 1930 speakeasy, which is run by the Farmily Group, which owns and runs seven bars in Milan. Credit…Andrea Wyner for The New York Times

The martini also gets the serious treatment at a quirky bar just steps from Bar Basso called drinc. Cocktail & Conversation.A green neon Tanqueray gin sign glows behind the bar. Order a martini here and a bar cart may be wheeled to your location and the cocktail prepared tableside.

Asked if he thought the martini was part of bars’ aperitivo culture, drinc owner Luca Marcellin said, “I would say absolutely yes. Especially in mine.” (When first created in the late 19th century, the martini was, indeed, regarded as a pre-dinner appetite stimulant.)

This is perhaps just as it has always been in Milan. Mr. Stocchetto said dry martinis have long been a popular order at Bar Basso.

Recently, Milan’s old and new drinking spheres collided when a collective of young mixologists decided to horn in on the aperitivo game by creating their own red bitters. The Farmily Group — five men, four of whom are bartenders — own and run seven bars in Milan. During the pandemic, all those bars shut down for a time. The group used their free time to devise a new product, Bitter Fusetti. (The liqueur is named after the street their bar Iter is on, Via Mario Fusetti, which is itself named after a World War I hero.)

The goal, said Flavio Angiolillo, a partner, was to produce a spirit “capable of becoming a valid alternative to the Italian classical bitters already available on the market.” That means when you go to Farmily Group bars, your Negronis will be made with Bitter Fusetti instead of Campari. The team also wants to extend the uses of Italian bitters beyond the usual to include drinks that employ citrus and other fresh ingredients. The main vehicle for this is something called the Fusettone, a simple highball made of Bitter Fusetti and pink grapefruit soda.

At Iter, one of the Farmily Group’s bars, drinks are made with a new liqueur, Bitter Fusetti, including the Fusettone, which combines it with pink grapefruit soda.Credit…Andrea Wyner for The New York Times
A bartender at Cà-Ri-Co prepares a martini.Credit…Andrea Wyner for The New York Times

The Fusetti team have also produced a series of limited-edition bottlings, including one called Americano whose base spirit is not neutral grain alcohol but bourbon. This makes it a natural fit for the American whiskey-based Negroni variation, the Boulevardier.

The Farmily Group is arguably the most dominant new voice in the Milan cocktail landscape and their portfolio of bars offers every sort of experience. In addition to Iter, a bistro where staff trips to various global spirit destinations are later translated into thematic menus, there is a speakeasy called 1930 to which you have to be personally invited; and BackDoor43, a 43-square-foot booze-lined closet with just four seats that bills itself as “the smallest cocktail bar in the world.” (If you’re not one of the lucky four, there is a takeout window with a limited drinks menu.)

Things are even moving forward at the old Camparino, where on any given day, behind the elegant ground-floor Bar di Passo, bartenders dressed in white jackets and black bow ties wield giant silver tweezers to ever so carefully lower citrus slices into goblets of glowing red liquid.

In 2019, a space upstairs from the main bar opened as Sala Spiritello. It is “the place where the bartenders’ art of mixology comes to life,” in the words of Tommaso Cecca, the store manager and head bartender. The most popular drink there is the Compadre, made with mezcal, chinotto liqueur, agave syrup, sweet vermouth, bitters and the inevitable Campari. And soon there will be a third smaller, invitation-only space in the basement called Sala Gaspare, named after the company founder, Gaspare Campari.

In its expanded form, the Camparino will simply be a microcosm of Milanese culture, which is always an interplay of the fresh and classical. Architectural monuments stand next to newer construction; timeless sartorial style meets current fashion on the street each day. The same extends to the drinking scene. A lot of the newer bars offer the same sort of high-concept craft cocktails you can find in other large cities, but one senses that they know they’re never going to completely win against tradition. The aperitivo will always be king in Milan.

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