Top 5 cocktails in Italy
Memoirs from an endless quest for the perfect cocktailby Konrad Niceday
“Camillo! Do not drink more than 20 Negronis per day!”. A letter written in 1921 says more than any book why Italy is a very special place for cocktails and why I like to drink around Italy. Cliff McGovern was a Scottish adventurer and entrepreneur, explored the American outback, financed new railways, built a magnificent manor in Montana. Camillo, an aristocrat of the Negroni dynasty, was his friend. They travelled the world together, but visits to Florence were the peak of their friendship: leisure, hunting, music and cocktails.
There’s nothing cooler than handing down a surname in a drink: Camillo Negroni was a passionate drinker, and the Americano (Campari, Martini, soda water) wasn’t strong enough. When Fosco Scarselli, the legendary bartender of Caffè Casoni, added a third of gin, the Negroni cocktail was born.
I always dreamt of having the same privilege, but the Niceday (a sour cherry Martini I invented some years ago) will never be as popular as Negroni. When I follow Camillo’s steps, I like to hang out at Caffè Giacosa, in Via della Spada, a turmoil of people. Late morning is the ideal moment to comment Florence’s latest news while young girls are chatting, having coffee and a cigarette.
Usually I like it lighter. It’s champagne replacing gin. The Sbagliato is a variant that was invented at Bar Basso in Milan, my favourite, and a few feet away from my flat. It’s poured into giant glasses, that’s how they launched cocktails in Milan in the late 60s. Every small sip, every single drop, is an excuse to imagine who was drinking at the same bar in those years. My favourite musicians, the Renaissance of Italian jazz. They were all meeting and drinking under the same taste.
It all depends on season. Under the right circumstances, July is the perfect month for a Bellini; it needs a ripe white peach, whose perfume reminds me of a Nabokov sentence I won’t tell you about. Have it at six, on the terrace of Hotel Gritti Palace: if you've spent all day at the Biennale, there’s nothing more rewarding. Gazes and memories, the Grand Canal is just there, you can get three in a row and still be unsatisfied. That’s pure, heavenly joy.
I could tell you a thousand stories revolving around the Martini, but the best came from my friend Mauro Lotti, who’s been behind the bar at the Grand Hotel in Rome for 30 years. In the late years of la dolce vita, he served Liz Taylor and Richard Barton: cocktails for love and sorrow. That’s the retro taste of any Martini. Do not miss spending a whole evening there. For many years, Joseph Ratzinger was a regular: did he ever imagine he would have had such a career? Probably not, those Martinis seemed the best we could ever achieve.
I’ve been going around the world for 20 years now, searching for fine cocktails and places that can make a life well-lived. How to stop time. I still think it’s not just about movies and books, it is simply true: nothing is more exciting than drinking a fine glass of mixed spirits, on a terrace looking the sea. At the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea (in the photo below) you can look at the gulf of Palermo, with the Aeolian Islands just in front. Mythology crosses imagination. That’s why Goethe called the valley of oranges an immense beauty, then added “Italy without Sicily leaves no image in spirit: here, only here, is the key to everything”. Ask for an Orange Blossom, they’ll make it fresh, with natural pressed red juice. You’ll experience the same perfume Goethe experienced more than 200 years ago. You will understand why I’m sitting here, at sunset, drinking and writing these memories for you.