Negroni. Cardinale. Bicicletta. The icons of Italian drinking conjure a feeling of sunset-hued elegance. But behind the refined façade exists another side of Italianate cocktails. It’s here that the Angelo Azzurro once resided. Here, too, is where you’ll find the Invisibile, a crystal-clear disco drink that’s as much a fixture of Italian drinking culture as the Negroni or Americano.
Also called the Quattro Bianchi, Italian for “four whites,” the drink combined unaged rum, gin and vodka, plus triple sec to sweeten it up a bit, all poured into a pint glass (often plastic) with very little ice, which promised unparalleled bang for your buck. “The Quattro Bianchi was nondrinking culture,” explains Federico Leone, a bartender-turned-ambassador for VII Hills gin, of the drink’s stature in certain cocktail circles.
Like many dark-age drinks, the origin of the Invisibile is difficult to pin down. “The Invisibile is not an officially recognized drink,” explains Alessandro Tambaro, a trainer at a bartending school in Abruzzo. “I call it the cocktail for the ignorant. Not in an offensive sense, but to explain how we think it came about.” Tambaro, who has worked—and occasionally still works—in Italian nightclubs, notes that in the decades between the 1970s and ’90s, cocktails became prized much more for their alcohol content than for any artful combination of flavors. “As a result, people believed that by putting at least three spirits together at 40 proof, the alcoholic grades of the cocktail would increase,” explains Tambaro. “So you had a monster of a cocktail.”
Just as the Angelo Azzurro varied from bar to bar, the precise makeup of the Invisibile morphed from region to region. In some places, Midori made an appearance; in others, blueberry syrup added a hint of color. The most famous iteration is the strawberry Invisibile, which in the south of Italy is called Quattro Bianchi e Fragolino, consisting of the four expected ingredients plus strawberry syrup. It was this version that inspired former bar manager Marianna Di Leo to revisit the maligned recipe at Cinquanta Spirito Italiano, a cocktail bar in Pagani, near Naples, where she was tasked with creating a drink inspired by Italian culture. “I’m obsessed with the ’90s, so the choice of Quattro Bianchi e Fragolino came naturally,” she explains. In her take, tequila becomes the primary base, complemented by small measures of gin, triple sec and mezcal for structure, alongside a spiced strawberry cordial. “The balance of the drink is completely different,” says Di Leo. “We wanted to serve it in a modern key, more technical but not too complex.”
Where once the Quattro Bianchi was verboten at leading Italian cocktail bars, a symbol of the dark ages of disco drinks, today it’s following a trajectory not unlike the Long Island Iced Tea stateside. That is, after years of reluctance, Italian bartenders are embracing the potential of the oft-derided club cocktail. “Today, we consider it a vintage cocktail in its own right,” says Leone. “If someone makes us a twist that’s thought-out and done right, why not?”