I remember my first negroni. It was in Florence in the mid 90s and I was walking the piazza after dinner with my Italian wine producer host. She was English and had moved to Italy 10 years earlier, looking for love, and staying for wine. A wise, complex, kind, and brilliant minded lady, she drank, she smoked, didn’t mince her words and drank negronis. Her knowledge on wine and life held me captivated and I wanted to be just like her. So when she suggested “one last drink” at her favorite bar, I couldn’t refuse.
We walked a dimly-lit block in the cool night air before happening up on “her place”. Stepping onto the gray marble porch and swinging open the heavy oak door, we found ourselves the subject of attention for the near all-male crowd, bellied up to the bar, smoking and conversing at varying decibels. Many held half empty glasses of assorted amaro and digestifs, but for Alex and I it was the negroni we were there for.
In flawless Italian tinged with a hint of Oxford, Alex ordered our drinks and the room fell silent. A few quizzical glances ensued, then the fellow next to Alex turned and jested in Italian, she with retorts. I later learned he had asked what kind of ladies we were to be ordering such a drink so late on a Tuesday night, for surely we had a home to go to and a husband to feed.
Too busy to notice I was transfixed by the bartender. The mid 60s man was a looming 6’2”; the lines on his face had earned their place, his fleshy worn hands dried from years of acid, sugar, and the vagaries of bartending life. He went about his craft with the precision and concentration of a cardiac surgeon; the crystal-clear ice cubes stacked into an impossibly clean old-fashioned glass.
With a seasoned silver measure and keen eye, he coalesced one-third each of Campari, sweet vermouth and gin to their final resting place. Navigating the solid silver swizzle between the glass walls and ice, his hands came alive, pirouetting the swizzle to an imaginary tune, clockwise for certain turns then counter clockwise. Then, just as an appreciative opera audience tosses flowers to stage, in front of us landed two white cocktail napkins and atop, a pair of the most exotic adult drinks I had seen.
Catching my gaze, the youthful sparkle in his eyes told you he was proud of his handiwork. There was no request for money, no waiting on applause. He was gone. Off to create another cocktail for the throngs he knew would also appreciate his handiwork.
The heady aromas of orange, mandarin, rose and juniper filled my senses, and the unctuous liquid hit my lips, instantly warming my insides and flooding memories of my first sip of “real liquor”. But better.
My host raised her glass, took a sip, a deep look of contemplation and a wry grin before announcing: “it’s a good one”. The perfect juxtaposition of sweetness, bitterness, absence, presence, simplicity and complexity. Life’s metaphor; we knew one would suffice.
Much like the martini, the negroni is a dangerous dance partner. Orson Welles, who discovered the cocktail while filming Black Magic in Rome in 1947 said: “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.” Smart man.
The negroni has been my loyal cocktail friend over the last 17 years. She comforts me, surprises me, and is always the yardstick by which I measure a great bartender. In its birthplace of Florence, it is served in a tumbler glass on the rocks with a slice of orange - never will it come “up” or served with citrus peel. I find the new bartenders and hipsters tend to want to mess with fancy vermouths, highly aromatic gins, replace Campari with sweeter Averna or, as they do in San Francisco, serve it blended and barrel aged, or on tap.
But nothing will replace the original. A classic negroni, like a classic martini is a crowd leveler, and for me, a friend selector. I give thanks to Count Cammillo Negroni and the day he strolled into Caffe Casoni in Florence and asked to replace the soda in his Americano with Gin. He may have been a philandering Italian turned American rodeo rider, but the Count sure knew a great drink when he saw one.