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Cocktails

Italy’s Lost Aperitivo

June 14, 2021

Story: Andrea Strafile

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

Italy’s Lost Aperitivo

June 14, 2021

Story: Andrea Strafile

photo: Lizzie Munro

A simple mixture of Campari and bitter orangeade, the Cardinale was once the spritz of southern Italy.

If you walk into a typical old-fashioned bar in southern and central Italy and order a Cardinale, you’ll probably be surprised that, instead of the Negroni-like mixture of gin, dry vermouth and bitter liqueur, they serve you a cocktail that looks much more like an Americano—tall, ombre and sparkling. Yes, there is another Cardinale—a cocktail that, today, survives thanks only to fading local traditions and the few dedicated regulars who still order it.

This other Cardinale is made with Campari Soda (a bottled, ready-to-drink combination of Campari and sparkling water) and bitter orangeade (aranciata); following the creation of the original Cardinale in the mid-20th century, it was one of the most popular aperitif cocktails in central and southern Italy—like the Spritz today. But it owes its success almost entirely to its more austere relative with whom it shares a name.

“The original Cardinale became hugely famous shortly after it was created at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome,” says Luca Di Francia, head bartender at the Orum Bar in the Westin Excelsior Hotel in Rome and Italian cocktail historian. “The fame reached by the Cardinale, between 1950 and 1960, thanks to the famous people of the time who passed through Rome like Hollywood actors, was enormous.” As Dale DeGroff recalls in The New Craft of the Cocktail, the Cardinale, in those years, was also well known in the United States.

“It is very likely, then, that the fame of the original Cardinale was such that popular bars exploited the name by using products always available in a typical bar,” says Di Francia, referencing Campari Soda and Aranciata Amara, two backbar staples.

Though the drink might well have been capitalizing on the success of its forebear, in certain regions of Italy, this simple combination became the better-known recipe of the two traveling under the Cardinale moniker, and eventually grew a following of its own. At the time, Campari Soda—one of the earliest RTDs in history, released in 1932—was a must-have aperitivo both at the bar and at home, while in the ’60s, bitter orangeade—launched by San Pellegrino in 1949—was the subject of a prominent advertising push that helped it rise to ubiquity. But perhaps the biggest boon to this newfangled Cardinale was the drink’s alternate title, “A Cardinale for Two,” which alluded to the fact that the packaged sizes of one Campari Soda and one bottle of aranciata yielded two drinks—a hard-to-refuse two-for-one offer.

Today, to drink one in Rome, you have to go to the city’s oldest bars, the ones with vertical neon signs—sometimes white, sometimes green—that state, simply “bar,” the last bastions of mostly forgotten drinking traditions. After a quick survey, almost no bartender in the city’s modern cocktail bars knew of the existence of this alternate Cardinale. A few had encountered it by another name. (Of course, it’s common for popular drinks—the Bicicletta, the Garibaldi—to undergo name and even recipe changes depending on location.) Some simply call it Campari Soda and Aranciata Amara, others replace Campari Soda with Campari bitter, and still others use orange juice instead of bitter orangeade.

Once widespread, the sparkling Cardinale is fighting an uphill battle even in its native Rome. “By now we’re doing maybe four a year,” says Marcello Forti, of Bar San Calisto in Rome, which has been serving it since 1968. “Today everyone is asking for spritz, but the Cardinale with Campari Soda is getting lost.” A classic expression of Italian aperitivo—bubbly, low-alcohol and refreshing—it should be flowing again in every bar.

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Tagged: aperitivo, Campari

Andrea Strafile lives in Trastevere, Rome. He is a food and cocktail writer for Munchies Italia, La Cucina Italiana, Esquire, Standart and more. He can’t say no to a Gibson. Wet, please.