• Posted by Allison Grimaldi Donahue on February 26th, 2009, 2:50 PM

    A friend guided me to my first Negroni. One should always happen upon the Negroni within the comforting reach of a good friend. There is something distinctly medicinal about the drink that leaves you feeling like you’ve done a hard drug, something decadent and filthy and you will have to pay the consequences, either later that night or when the sun finally rises.  Indeed, a good Negroni has such a dark red hue it could be mistaken for a potent cough syrup. It can be the cure for a trying week, or the beginning of a less challenging weekend.  

    I had my first Negroni at a small bar called Kitsch in Piazza Beccaria in Florence—someone inadvertently ordered one for me—and I never looked back. Sitting outside, being glamorous, eating off of dainty plates with tiny forks, watching the beautiful people shamelessly smoke cigarette after cigarette…I was lucky to have that first Negroni in Florence, the city of its origin, because I was guaranteed authenticity. (Legend has it that in around 1919, Count Camillo Negroni ordered a classic cocktail, the Americano, with gin instead of the traditional soda to add an extra punch.) The Negroni, which is equal parts gin, Campari, and Cinzano Rosso, a sweet vermouth, is quintessentially Florentine: sweet and bitter, highly alcoholic, an acquired taste that is slightly provincial but undoubtedly fashionable—a city in a glass.

    Bitterness is one of the last flavors the palate learns to appreciate. It isn’t like first love, but something that requires care and attention, the nurturing of a good habit. Palates mature and change, and enjoying a Negroni is a sign of true adulthood—in terms of alcohol consumption anyway. Like most good habits, bitters actually have healing qualities, namely to stimulate appetite and settle one’s stomach. The sweeter, stronger bitters are generally reserved for consumption after the meal, while easier, less syrupy drinks are for before dinner.

    These herbal concoctions have centuries of history behind them, first being produced by monks and later by pharmacists during the Renaissance. Most of Europe considers the healing properties of bitters to be old wives tales, but in Italy, which consumes more bitters than any other (by a long shot), these myths hold true in daily life. Just like wearing a scarf to keep the cold off of your neck or never going outdoors with wet hair, drinking bitters is sensible.

    Italy produces over 20 kinds of bitters, each region having their own specialties and local, secret ingredients. Most of these bitters are brownish in color but Campari is set apart by its vermillion shade. It is impossible to uncover all of the secret ingredients that set Campari apart from all other liquors; one must simply give into the mystery and drink.

    But it is its combination of bitterness with sweetness that makes a Negroni the perfect complement to an aperitivo. The Italian aperitivo (advertised as a pre-dinner snack, but a filling evening meal for a poor student) is a buffet of salty meats, cheeses, vegetables, and pastas. And thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma and an aged pecorino pair perfectly with the citrusy flavor Campari lends to the Negroni. Fresh grissini are also nice to munch on with a Negroni because of their salty crunchy nature, as are olives and garlic, crusty bread, barnyardy sheep cheeses, and spicy hot peppers. Contrast is the key to pairing food with a Negroni. Strong flavors complement each other well in this case.

    Tasting a Negroni—one that is well made anyway—transports me back to those warm nights sitting with friends in the piazza outside the church of Sant’Ambrogio. But around here, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it’s a little difficult to find one properly made. The drinks are often out of balance. Most Americans drink their Negronis straight up like a martini; the Italian way is over ice in a rocks glass. Amazingly, at Hotel Del Mano, a lovely cocktail bar here in Williamsburg, they give you either option. Their Negroni is well balanced and presented with a pulpy orange slice.

    I have tried to recreate bitters at home, but something is always off, too much or too little of some flavor. Last summer I was on a kick and filled jars with all kinds of ingredients, extracting potions each day for weeks. A couple of my experiments were successful, mostly the infusions. I will try it again, with more exactly scientific methods I reckon.

    There is nothing more to say, I need a Negroni.

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