Over the years, Americans have adopted many of Italy’s finest culinary exports, from cappuccino and tiramisu to Parmigiano-Reggiano and prosciutto di Parma to prosecco and pizza. But, living in a post-workday culture often built around the boozy, value-added happy hour, many have been hesitant to embrace the elevated Italian tradition of aperitivo—that magical, transitory time that bridges the gap between work and dinner.
That being said, two popular Italian cocktails have established a foothold stateside. The Aperol Spritz—a refreshing, low-ABV mix of bittersweet Aperol, soda water and prosecco—is so ubiquitous, that the last four summers have been branded as the “Summer of the Spritz.” And while it’s a bit too spirituous for more than one at aperitivo hour, the Negroni, the equal-parts classic of bitter Campari, sweet vermouth and gin, has transformed itself into a certified superstar.
While the spritz and the Negroni have stepped into their leading roles with confidence, there’s a supporting cast of aperitivo drinks you’ll find in Italy built around a backbone of bitterness—ranging in style from sweet and bubbly to austere and dry—that are worthy of attention. Some of these, like the Americano and the Negroni Sbagliato, have been bubbling up on the menus of bars around the country waiting to breakout; others, like the Bicicletta and Garibaldi, have been bolstered by modern interpretations. And it may take a while for fringe classics like the Milano-Torino, Shakerato, Sgroppino and Giostra d’Alcol to land on the most-requested charts in American bars, but they’re all candidates for creative experimentation.
I recently met up with Naren Young, the creative director of Dante in New York’s Greenwich Village, one of the leading bars in America celebrating Italian drinking culture, to workshop these bittersweet benchwarmers. Here’s our attempt to give each its moment in the spotlight.
First served around 1860 in Gaspare Campari’s café in Milan, this drink—often shortened to “Mi-To”—takes its name from the birthplaces of Campari (Milan) and Vermouth di Torino (Turin). It represents the bittersweet blueprint for aperitivo classics like the Americano and the Negroni. “This is where all of these drinks started,” says Young, of the equal-parts drink typically served over ice with an orange slice. “That’s one I wouldn’t even attempt to try and elevate. It kind of is what it is. It’s an important drink, historically, but I don’t ever see a time where this drink would be a mainstream drink to order.”
The Giostra d’Alcol (the “carousel of alcohol”) was a cocktail that was created in Turin in the 1930s by painter and sculptor Enrico Prampolini as part of the Italian Futurist movement. In his book Futurist Mixology, Fulvio Piccinino describes the drink as a shuffled version of the spritz, made with Campari, Barbera d’Asti wine and cedrata, a citron-infused sparkling soda. The drink is also adorned with two skewers—one spearing a cube of semi-hard cheese, the other stabbing through a piece of bitter chocolate.
Young’s reaction to the drink: “Never heard of it. Should we try one?” The resulting purple-hued cocktail, which he topped off with Baladin Cedrata, was pretty dry and bitter, so he tweaked the recipe a bit, adding a barspoon of honey syrup for “a bit more roundness.” As for the cheese and chocolate garnishes of the original? Young left those on the cutting room floor and stuck with a classic orange slice.
A direct descendent of the Milano-Torino, this low-alcohol highball consisting of Campari, sweet vermouth and soda water, got its name due to its popularity among American expats during Prohibition, who requested a splash of soda to soften the bittersweet profile of the drink. You could make a case that the Americano belongs alongside the Aperol Spritz and the Negroni in the starting line-up, but Young is quick to counter. “You may think that people know what an Americano is, but you can still go into a bar and order an Americano and they’ll bring you a coffee,” he says. “It’s not even remotely close to being a top-seller at Dante. It wouldn’t even be in our top 30.”
Despite underperforming, the Americano remains on the menu for its historical importance. Inspired by the scope of the drink’s versatility, Young and his team recently gave it a makeover, calling their version Americano 2.0. Young uses Martini Bitter and the very non-Italian Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry Rouge for the base and veers further off the traditional path with a dash of Maldon salt solution and six drops of orange citrate for a pop of citrus. The drink is then topped with Baladin Ginger, a spicy, red-hued Italian soda flavored with bitter oranges and vanilla (and, surprisingly, no ginger). While still far from a permanent place on the menu, the revamped version of Dante’s house Americano is seeing a steady increase in sales.
One night in the late 1960s, at Milan’s historic Bar Basso, owner Mirko Stocchetto accidentally reached for a bottle of sparkling wine instead of gin when making a Negroni. The customer didn’t seem to mind and the Negroni Sbagliato (sbagliato means “mistaken” in Italian) was born. His son, Maurizio Stocchetto, now runs Bar Basso and continues the tradition, serving the drink in comically oversized, custom glass goblets. “It strikes a perfect balance in day versus night, winter versus summer,” says Young, praising the drink’s sessionable qualities compared to the traditional Negroni. Of all the drinks ready to suit up and get in the game, the Sbagliato feels like the one that’s going to cross over. It doesn’t hurt that it comes with a great origin story.
Young’s updated version, the Golden Sbagliato, is built on a base of Cappelletti Aperitivo Americano Rosso, Cinzano 1757 Rosso Vermouth and two unexpected flourishes—a splash of fragrant Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto and a snow globe’s worth of edible gold flakes—all combined over three ice cubes in a wine glass and topped with prosecco. “Our overriding philosophy here is to give people drinks they’ve maybe tried, but present them in a way they’ve never had before,” says Young.
The Bicicletta is a bitter spritz-like drink of mid-1930s origin made with Campari, dry white Italian wine and club soda. It gets its name from the preferred method of transportation of the older Italian gentlemen who often walked their bicycles home after a few of the namesake drinks. While you rarely see this on cocktail menus in America, Young insisted on featuring this “unabashedly Italian” drink on draft. “The main reason we put it on tap is that it adds a bit more of an exciting element to it,” says Young. “You can change the wine, change the bitters, try different sodas, but ultimately you can’t play around with it too much.” While it’s not a huge seller at Dante, Young credits the bartenders and servers for their enthusiasm in how they describe the drink, which is served in either a footed highball or an old-fashioned glass with an lemon-wheel garnish. When I ask if the garnish is a nod to the drink’s name, Young smiles and says, “I hadn’t thought of that, but sure, why not?”
Named after Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, who was a central figure in the unification of Italy, the Garibaldi also travels under a much simpler moniker: Campari and Orange. The red-hued Campari from the north is a nod to the red shirts worn by Garibaldi’s freedom fighters, while the bright orange represents Sicily to the south. At Dante, the Garibaldi has become their flagship drink. “We basically wanted to create something very simple that you might find at a café in Italy,” says Young, who with this team tested out at least four different styles of juicers before settling on a model from Breville for their juiced-to-order drink. “Once we started juicing these up we got a thick, fluffy texture.” Fluffy is the operative word here. In fact, Young credits the use of it on the menu to the drink’s popularity—that, and the serve: an eight-ounce juice glass placed on a small plate with a thick orange wedge set across the top. “We did not invent the Garibaldi,” says Young. “But we perfected it.”
The Sgroppino is a hyper-regional drink with a long history of being enjoyed by Venice’s aristocratic class as both a palate-cleansing intermezzo and a postprandial digestivo. The name of the drink comes from sgropin, the word for “untie” in Italian, and in Venetian dialect roughly translates to “little un-knotter” (as in, your stomach). It’s usually a slushy mix of prosecco, vodka, limoncello and lemon sorbet that’s then mixed with a hand-blender or whisked together in a bowl.
“It’s a simple drink with a certain purity in the ingredients,” says Young. “And it’s something most people haven’t heard of.” Since 2017, Dante has been presenting their seasonal takes on Sgroppino using sorbets from Brooklyn’s Oddfellows alongside complementary aperitivi and liqueurs. Their current Passionfruit Sgroppino consists of a tart passionfruit sorbet served in a frozen coupe with a pour-over of bright-orange Contratto Aperitif and prosecco, which is then misted with a fragrant spray of orange flower water.
Coffee versions of the Shakerato—an icy shaken drink made with espresso, simple syrup and sometimes cream—are common throughout Italy. But the Campari Shakerato, often referred to as Shaken Campari, is a rarer bird—and an acquired taste. “I mean you have to love Campari to order this drink,” says Young. “It’s quite sweet. It’s quite bitter. It’s quite polarizing. There are no modifiers. There’s nothing for it to hide behind.”
Unadorned Campari shaken with ice is traditional, but there are increasing liberties being taken with bartender’s choice versions, including one from Tommaso Cecca, head bartender at Bar Camparino in Milan, that calls on corn- and-saffron-infused ice cream, and another nod (sans Campari) from Brooks Reitz’s new Charleston pizzeria, Melfi’s. Reitz was inspired by a version he tried in Milan last summer but, like Young, suspected straight Campari would be a tough sell. Their take, dubbed Bitter Grapefruit, vis a combination of Luxardo Bitter, Giffard Pamplemousse liqueur and lemon served from a bubble tea machine.
Young’s version, meanwhile, combines two-and-a-half ounces of Campari, saline solution and orange flower water, which he shakes and strains into a chilled Nick and Nora glass. “Serve it on a nice metal coaster or something pretty,” he says. “Then you’ve got something more interesting than just shaken Campari.”