Among the warm, sunset-colored hues that define the Italian cocktail canon, there’s one drink that has left a sticky blue stain on the country’s reputation of style and sophistication. If you danced and drank the night away in the Italian clubs of the 1990s, it’s very likely that you had one hand wrapped around an oversize Martini glass sloshing the contents of a neon blue, high-octane Angelo Azzurro all over the dance floor. Born in the 1980s and reaching its height of popularity in the 1990s, the “Blue Angel” still lingers hazily in the Italian collective consciousness like a Sunday morning hangover.
“As an Italian, who really hasn’t tried an Angelo Azzurro if you are 30 years or older?” asks Salvatore Tafuri, a Palermo-born bartender who now works in Miami as a luxury portfolio specialist for William Grant & Sons.
For a cocktail considered a stalwart of a certain era of Italian nightlife, the drink itself isn’t very Italian. To wit: There are no Italian ingredients used in the build, it isn’t bitter, and its signature color is less a nod to the vibrant Capri-colored Mediterranean Sea and more in line with a murky, comb-filled jar of Barbicide. It was a word-of-mouth drink that traveled across Italy and was usually made up on the fly at each bar that served it. As such, recipe specs and variations abound, but the sweet and potent cocktail was roughly three parts London dry gin to one-and-a-half parts triple sec, with a half-part blue Curaçao, shaken and served up in a V-shaped cocktail glass with a lemon twist.
Like a weary business traveler looking for a stiff pour at a hotel bar, for many drinkers the Angelo Azzurro was a vehicle to get drunk as quickly—and cheaply—as possible. “If you were ordering the Angelo Azzurro you wanted it to taste like gasoline,” says Tafuri, who served countless Angeli Azzurri while working at Victory Morgana Bay in the Riviera town of Sanremo. He remains grateful that in his 11 years in the United States he’s never had a guest order one. “The Angelo Azzurro shows a side of the ’80s and ’90s Italian culture that was in love with flashy colors, American shows like Miami Vice,” he says.
There were certainly other popular, boozy drinks of the era that helped muster “liquid courage” in the clubs, like the Quattro Bianchi, an Italian take on the Long Island Iced Tea, but none that captured the moment quite like the Blue Angel. “The Angelo Azzurro embodies the mixology of the past—quite vulgar and made for the discotheque and nightclub,” says Fulvio Piccinino, an Italian drinks historian and teacher and author of Futurist Mixology, Amari and Bitter and The Vermouth of Turin. “Now people who normally ask for an Angelo Azzurro are people that we call tamarri, people that are quite rude and not so elegant with loud voices and flashy clothes.” (Think Jersey Shore.)
“I never thought of the Blue Angel cocktail as a symbol of the LGBT+ community, but I can say that in those evenings there was fun, freedom and zero politics.”
But there’s more to the drink than meets the eye. In a way, the arc of the Blue Angel is similar to the Cosmopolitan’s path. What started in name as a Kamikaze variation in San Francisco gay bars was improved upon by bartender Toby Cecchini in 1988, when it was first served as a staff drink at New York’s Odeon. Soon, the restaurant’s bold-faced regulars were ordering it. The Cosmo spread throughout the city and across America, eventually becoming a self-described “albatross” to Cecchini, especially during its second revival a decade later, when the drink became a recurring character on Sex and the City. Now, with enough distance, bartenders who instinctively dismissed the Cosmo in favor of a return to the classics have realized that maybe there’s something deeper to be learned about a crowd-pleasing cocktail.
The same is true for the Angelo Azzurro. Two tributes to the drink were recently published that helped place the cocktail in a historical context, as well as celebrate its heritage and its creator. In the Italian magazine BarTales, Bastian Contrario writes about how following Italy’s politically and socially turbulent 1970s, drinks like the Angelo Azzurro were part of a youthful revolt and rejection of the classic bitter drinks of la dolce vita. In Munchies Italia, Andrea Strafile tracks down the creator of the Angelo Azzurro, Giovanni Pepè, who, in the tradition of great divas like Cher and Madonna, goes by one name: Mammina (“mommy”).
The charismatic and much beloved bartender from Naples (now 69 years old) created the drink in 1980, naming his creation in honor of the newly opened L’Angelo Azzurro, a gay nightclub in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. The bar’s name was inspired by the 1930 film The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich, whose sexually ambiguous allure made her an icon of the gay community. As Mammina told Munchies: “I never thought of the Blue Angel cocktail as a symbol of the LGBT+ community, but I can say that in those evenings there was fun, freedom and zero politics. Everyone, but I mean everyone, wanted to participate in those transgressive evenings: In those years it was top.”
The drink soon became popular throughout the capital city and, as with the success of the Cosmopolitan in America, over time variations became bountiful in bars and clubs throughout Italy. A long drink version over ice with tonic water rivaled the original serve in popularity (likely owing to its ease of handling while dancing) and another variation, the Bomba Blu (“blue bomb”), replaced the tonic with lemonade or lemon soda.
Nick Palmeri, owner of Gaetano’s Ristorante in Henderson, Nevada, was first introduced to the Angelo Azzurro when he turned 21. His father, Gaetano, was a celebrated barman and restaurateur from Gela, Sicily, who shook up countless Angeli Azzurri when he worked as a bartender on Sitmar cruise ships in the ’70s. He recently revisited the drink, modifying it with the drying addition of Luxardo Bitter Bianco.
“I feel like a certain amount of sprezzatura went into the creation of the Angelo Azzurro. What if I had a Martini but it was blue? That extra thing, right? That certain Italian vibrancy.”
“There’s a little citrus in the Luxardo and with the bit of gentian in there [it] actually took away a lot of the sweetness,” says Palmeri. “It isn’t super bitter, but you could actually sell this and have somebody say, ‘Hey, this is a good cocktail,’ instead of ‘Hey, I’m here to get fucked up.’”
Dan Sabo, director of food and beverage for the soon-to-be-opening Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles, had his first Angelo Azzurro while out at the clubs during a college summer abroad in Siena in 2001. “Ultimately, I do like the idea that you have this blue drink that lends itself to feeling like one thing but ends up being subversive because it’s the opposite,” he says, noting the allure of the blue cocktail whose siren song lures you in like a tropical beachside sipper but leaves you shipwrecked. “I feel like a certain amount of sprezzatura went into the creation of the Angelo Azzurro. What if I had a Martini but it was blue? That extra thing, right? That certain Italian vibrancy. That, to me, is what this drink is,” says Sabo.
As American bartenders go ever deeper in their exploration of the Negroni, and the drinking public continues to embrace low-ABV drinks and a growing brigade of red bitters, how should we consider the Angelo Azzurro among Italian cocktails? Is it a forgotten footnote, or does it have the potential to represent more than the sum of its parts and be reframed and hung up for the pleasure of a new generation of drinkers? Even the skeptic Fulvio Piccinino isn’t quite sure.
“Why make a 2.0 Angelo Azzurro?” muses Piccinino before pausing to consider his own question. “Then again,” he says, “the spritz was a poor cocktail made in the cheap bars of Veneto.” And look how that story turned out.