LA DOLCE VITA
How the Negroni Conquered America
It took a century, but the Negroni cocktail has finally become a sensation in the United States.
Until the cocktail revolution of the last 20-odd years, the Negroni was Patrick Stewart before Star Trek called.
The Italian-born mix of gin, vermouth and Campari had its fans, enjoyed the critics’ respect, and was well-known in the country of its birth, but it was far from a household name in America or the rest of the world. Now, of course, it is—like Sir Patrick himself—a global icon, and one of the most popular and beloved things in its field.
But the Negroni wouldn’t have been able to climb those last steps to the peak of Cocktail Olympus if it hadn’t been waiting right there at the bottom of the stairs, ready for its call. How it got to that stage is, I think, the most interesting and even illuminating part of its complex story, and it has not been well understood.
The drink’s origins have been ably chronicled by the Florentine bartender and drink historian Luca Picchi, most recently in his Negroni Cocktail: An Italian Legend. The cast: Camillo Negroni, a Florentine Count with English blood, and Fosco Scarselli, a bartender. The place: Casoni, a café and drugstore (hey, it’s Italy) on the fashionable Via Tornabuoni in Florence. The story: Negroni steps up to the bar and asks Scarselli for his usual Americano (vermouth, aperitivo bitters, soda and ice), but this time “fortified” with a splash of gin. The Count, who had been a cowboy in Montana and Alberta and a professional gambler and fencing instructor in New York, finds the fortified drink much more to his taste.
We’re not sure precisely when Negroni placed his fateful order, but it had to have been between 1912, when he moved back to Florence, and October, 1920, when a friend from London wrote him, including in his letter the suggestion that he “must not take more than 20 Negronis in a day” (sound advice, to be sure). Scarselli later recalled the occasion as being in 1919 or 1920, and, after all, it’s his story, too.
At first, the Count kept his little twisted Americano on the down low, at least according to the Italian journalist Enzo Grassini, who was a regular at Casoni in the early 1920s and, 40 years later, recalled him and Scarselli well. By the late 1920s, however, his secret was out and other customers there were asking for their Americanos Negroni-style.
That, at least, is oral history. In terms of hard documentation, though, after that 1920 letter we don’t hear of the Negroni for another 27 years, when it turns up in Cocktail Portfolio, an obscure Italian drinks book that was recently rediscovered by Paolo Ponzo, an Italian bartender and drinks historian. That period of hibernation is understandable: Mussolini and his fellow Fascists, who ruled the country from 1922 to 1943 (and parts of it until 1945) were so hostile to such degenerate, foreign habits as cocktail-drinking that they even banned the very word “cocktail.” According to their ideology, Italians were supposed to be flinty-hard and disciplined, not loose and lively; to run an empire, not a bar tab. (There was only one important cocktail book published in Italian from the whole Fascist-era, but while its author, Elvezio Grassi, was a dedicated Fascist, he was a Swiss one, from the Italian part of that country, where nobody had any problems with cocktail-drinking.)
We do know that somebody somewhere in Italy nonetheless tried to get the Negroni over during those dark years, but only because a straight-up version of it appears in Cocktail Portfolio as the “Asmara,” named after the capital of Eritrea, one of Italy’s African colonies. The name had to be from the Fascist era, partly because Italian Fascists—like all Fascists—were suckers for anything, no matter how trivial, that made them feel big and important, but mostly since the British deftly escorted Eritrea out of the Italian empire at gunpoint in 1941, never to return.
But Cocktail Portfolio also marks 1947 as the first time the Negroni appears as such, with an actual recipe. It’s the classic Negroni, with no ups or extras: 1/3 gin, 1/3 vermouth, 1/3 Campari, on the rocks with a twist of orange and a splash of seltzer. After that, the drink starts turning up with frequency. It can’t be because of the book, of which so few copies were printed that you can tally the known survivors on the fingers of one hand, but the book certainly is a signpost of the reawakening of the Count’s simple idea.
At the end of that same year, Orson Welles, newly divorced from Rita Hayworth, wrote to the American gossip columnist Erskine Johnson about the “Negronis” he was drinking in Rome, where he was shooting a movie. Welles described the drink accurately, adding that “the [Campari] bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you” and that “they balance each other out.” Johnson put the note in his column, which was widely syndicated.
Over the next few years the drink starts turning up with greater and greater frequency. In 1949, an Italian journalist uses it as an example of a popular cocktail; in 1951, Vitya Vronsky, a Russian-American concert pianist is trotting it out for her guests in Santa Fe as something she picked up in Italy, confessing her uncertainty as to “whether it was introduced by the Medicis of the 15th century or the American GIs of the 20th.” That same year, Victor, head barman at the Sherry-Netherland in New York, was recommending the drink to the readers of House & Garden and Ted Saucier, the press agent for that city’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel slipped not one, but four recipes for it into his landmark drink book, Bottoms Up. Of them, two were from establishments in Rome, one from the Ritz in Paris and one—labeled the “Negrone”—was from Restaurant Marguery on Park Avenue, two blocks from the Waldorf and ten from the Sherry-Netherland. (Elsewhere in America, the drink was at first perceived by some as not an Italian drink, but a New York one.)
It was also as the Negrone that the drink appeared in the 1952 edition of the little booklet that the legendary Floridita bar in Havana handed out to its favored customers (the booklet is frequently misdated as being from 1939, but internal evidence makes that impossible). In 1953, it was the Negroni again when it made it into the closest thing the cocktail world had to a standard reference at the time, the Guide to Drinks published by the United Kingdom Bartenders’ Guild. But now it was considered a straight-up cocktail; one to be stirred with ice and strained into a cocktail glass, not built on the rocks and softened with soda water as the Count took his.
At this point, clearly, the Negroni was no longer a novelty. In just six years, it achieved a solid supporting-player status in the cocktail world. Though it was nowhere near as popular as the Martini, the Manhattan or the Old-Fashioned, it was nonetheless up there with the Sidecar and the Bronx and the Stinger and a whole raft of other drinks that had been around for ages. It would take the Margarita, which first appeared in print under that name in 1953, something like twice as long to do the same thing.
Before we whip through its later history, let’s pause to consider why this bitter, red highball-variation made such rapid inroads. It’s not the taste of the thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (indeed, many consider the Negroni to be the tastiest of all mixed drinks; while I’m not quite with them, I’m not far behind). But if the combination of gin, vermouth and Campari was some irresistible elixir that converted all who sipped it to instant cultists, that would have happened a generation before the drink rose to prominence, and perhaps two.
In 1933, the prolific and witty American novelist, screenwriter, columnist and writer-at-large Nina Wilcox Putnam threw into an amusing doubletalk column on the practice of bouncing checks the observation that “All Gaul was divided in three parts.” If she pinched the idea of France’s tripartite fission from the book that Julius Caesar wrote about the place back when he was wrangling it into the Roman empire, the parts she split it into were anything but classical: “one part gin, one part vermouth and one part Italian bitters.” Then again, having spent much of the 1920s in Paris and on the Riviera, she’d been to France much more recently than the Divine Julius, and she’d seen what they were drinking.
Campari, the Italian bitters in question, spent the 1920s aggressively courting the French market. It did all of the usual stuff—usual to us now, anyway: it took out lavish ads, sponsored cocktail contests, subsidized drinks books. It even opened a French subsidiary. As a result, by the end of the decade Paris was awash in Campari cocktails. A couple of these have come down to us: the Boulevardier and the Old Pal are both the kind of thing you find in modern cocktail bars—whiskey (bourbon in the former in one, Canadian rye in the latter), vermouth and Campari, served up.
But there were dozens of others, including the 1926 Campari Cardinal (gin, Italian vermouth and a splash of Campari) by Piero Grandi—there were a lot of Italian bartenders in Paris—and the 1928 Campari Mixte from a pair of French bartenders named Milhorat and Alimbau, which bumps the Campari up to an equal part and thus makes it essentially a straight-up Negroni. In 1929, over half a dozen Paris bars contributed similar drinks, give or take a couple of ingredients, to the “International Cocktail Championship,” which a local nightlife magazine sponsored.
It’s even possible that the Count himself had something to do with all this activity: he traveled from Florence to London in the 1920s, and he would have had to stop in Paris. A dyed-in-the-wool sport with an encyclopedic knowledge of racehorses and other ways of whiling away an idle fortune, he would have found many acquaintances at the Chatham bar and other sporting outposts who would have been game to try something new in the way of liquoring up.
On the other hand, let’s for a moment step back another generation, to 1907, when Camillo Negroni had already returned to Italy from New York. That year, the Cerruti Mercantile Co. of Washington St., San Francisco, began running a long series of ads for “Bitter Campari” in that city’s Italian-language newspaper, L’Italia. Among the uses it suggested for Campari was “nei cocktail”—in cocktails.
Cerutti distributed the stuff up and down the West Coast, and the odds are pretty good that somebody somewhere was game to mix up a drink or two with it. If so, it’s not fantastical to suggest that they would have tried it out in a Martini, then the most popular drink in America. At the time, the default recipe for that most indispensable of drink was gin, Italian—i.e., sweet—vermouth and bitters. The natural move would be to use the Campari in place of the standard orange or Angostura Bitters, yielding a drink identical to that “Campari Cardinal.”
In other words, it’s quite possible that Italian-American bartenders were testing Negroni taste-alikes out on their customers up and down the West Coast in the early 1900s. It’s just as possible that some of the thousands of drink-obsessed Americans who visited Paris 20 years later brought the simple booze-vermouth-Campari formula home and sprang it on their unsuspecting friends, like they did with the Sidecar, another Parisian favorite. The fact that it was Prohibition is no objection: the museum at Campari’s headquarters in Milan preserves a bottle from the 1920s intended for the American market with “For Medicinal Purposes” stamped on the label in red. That didn’t mean it was legal, as the number of arrests recorded in the American newspapers of the day for possession of “Italian bitters” attests, but it at least let the company claim that any abuse was off-prescription. (If you find yourself in Milan with the shank of an afternoon to kill, by the way, there are far worse ways of doing it than at the Campari Gallery; book in advance.)
But if they did, there’s no proof of it; no record. Now, it’s true that lots of things that happen never make it on record. But once they start happening over and over it becomes increasingly hard to keep it out of the papers. We don’t know who brought the Sidecar to America, but by the end of the 1920s it was in all the top speakeasies. Not the Negroni. What we can say is that given two very solid opportunities to experiment with the Negroni in the 1900s and 1920s, Americans either declined to do so or did so and found it wanting. Even in Paris, by the mid-1930s the Campari drinks had faded away.
If it wasn’t the Negroni’s taste or its formula, which put it over the top in the late 1940s, it must have been something else. To find that, we have to go back to Italy, and to the end of World War II. When the shooting stopped in May, 1945, the country was in shambles. In 1940, Mussolini had dragged the country, more or less unwilling, into World War II on the Nazi side. It did not go well. An invasion of Greece failed at huge cost. That 1941 loss of Eritrea was soon followed by that of Libya, Italy’s largest foreign colony, and then, in 1943, of Sicily.
At that point, Italians were done—except when they tried to throw Mussolini out and surrender, the Germans simply snatched him from the mountain-top where he was being held, put him in nominal charge of the two-thirds of the country the Allies had not yet reached, and flooded it with their troops, all entrenched on the high ground and perfectly willing to stay there. It took two years of bombing, shelling, strafing, bleeding and dying to push them back up against the Alps. What was left behind was smashed, cracked, crumbled, looted, lost. People were homeless and hungry and at each others’ throats.
Of course, most of the rest of Europe was in the same shape, or worse. Even Britain, victorious and uninvaded, was a wreck. But after wandering incredulous in the ruins for a time, the Italians did something unexpected. They started celebrating. Despite the destruction and the poverty, they were free from Fascist social discipline for the first time in a generation. There was nobody to tell them what to do or how to behave. Many of them—most, really—put their heads down and tried to get back to the comfortable day-to-day round of Italian life. But there were many who dressed themselves to the nines and went out, whether they could afford it or not. Dancing, dining, drinking—and not even with food! (The Italians tended, and still tend, to tie most of their tippling to the day’s meals.) There was glamour. There was sex.
Dopoguerra, they called it at first; “postwar.” Eventually, though, it became la dolce vita, which requires no translation. In time, the sweet life helped inspire Italy to an economic miracle, and what was sweet for a few became good for the masses. In 1947, though, the party was far from widespread. You could find it at its most orgiastic on the island of Capri, but then again Capri had always had that affect on people. The heart of it, however, was just a couple of blocks in Rome, on Via Vittorio Veneto between the American embassy and the Borghese gardens. That was no coincidence: the sweet life was as American in its DNA as it was Italian. Forward-looking, hedonistic, loud and confident, it was a big, uplifted finger to the old Europe of starched collars and historic destinies; of obedience and propriety and all of that rubble.
If there was one symbol of this new Italy, it was the Vespa, a chic, sleek riff on a wartime paratrooper’s motorbike that was launched in April, 1946 and went on to conquer the country and then the world with its annoying, exhilarating whine. If there was another, it was the Campari bottle. Almost out of business during the war, in 1946 Campari managed to ship 400,000 liters of its iconic red bitter from the ruins of Milan, all of them to Italian cities. In 1950, that figure was over 1,000,000 liters, only 20,000 of which were exported, including a paltry 990 liters to the Americas. In 1951, though, it started advertising in the New Yorker.
It seemed like a frighteningly high percentage of those million liters were being consumed in two cafes on Via Veneto: the Café Rosati, and the Café Doney across the street on the ground floor of the Excelsior Hotel, where Orson Welles was staying when he encountered the Negroni in 1947. Both were thronged, although the Rosati’s clientele tended to be more Italian and the Doney’s more American. In either case, the action was outside at the sidewalk tables—or at the tables, around the tables, between the tables, down the street from the tables, in the gutter, in the street. It was a floating party.
The reigning drink, of course, was Campari. It was modern, sleek, brightly-colored, cheap and not too strong. You could mix it with soda for a light refresher. To get the party started, you could get more American and throw in some vermouth, for an Americano. Or, if that didn’t have enough megatonnage for you, you could, of course, also splash in some gin. A great many did: for the Italians, it was stronger, and hence more daring, than the Americano; for the Americans, it was weaker, and hence more sophisticated, than their customary Martinis.
Valentino Clementi, the head bartender at Rosati, claimed that the combination was his idea; that the Negroni was his. It wasn’t—he was six when the English antique dealer mentioned the drink in his letter to his friend the Count. It’s possible that he introduced it to the street, though. It’s much more likely, however, that Via Veneto became Negroni territory due to Café Doney. Construction for Doney began during the war and it opened in 1946. It was not the first of its name: that was an old café founded in Via Tornabuoni in Florence by Gasparo Doney, an ex-Napoleonic soldier, in the early nineteenth century. In time, the Florentine café became so successful that it branched out. In 1933 or 1934, it took over another café down the street, the Café Giocosa, which the year before had very gently replaced the Drogheria Casoni. Casoni, of course, was where Count Negroni had leaned over the bar and asked Fosco Scarselli to put a little gin in his drink (Scarselli had left when it became the Giacosa).
I don’t know if any of the employees of the Florence Doney transferred to the Rome branch when it opened, but there must have been some contact and some shared clientele; some path of communication. In any case, in dopoguerra Rome, the Florentine Negroni finally found its stairway to the stars. (One of the four Negronis in Saucier’s Bottoms Up was sent over by the Rome Doney; it was made according to Hoyle, except for being strained into a cocktail glass, no doubt to appeal to the Martini-drinkers out on the sidewalk.)
Back in the United States, the drink’s cult grew slowly but steadily throughout the 1950s and 1960s. It was never a regular Joe’s drink; rather, it belonged to bohemia and, especially, to the jet set and to bohemia. Movie stars and such drank it—Welles was joined in his taste for the drink by the likes of Audrey Hepburn and her husband Mel Ferrer, Ray Milland and Rudolf Nureyev, among others.
But it was also the drink of all of those intrepid Americans who had packed their American Tourister suitcases and sat sleepless across the Atlantic in tourist class, only to be patronized and exploited and, just often enough, treated with genuine kindness and warmth as they wandered confusedly through the New Italy, which was a lot like the old one but with more Coca-Cola and, fortunately, Negronis in the Piazza Cavour at the end of the day. By 1956, Austin, Nichols & Co., Campari’s American importer, was advertising the Negroni—in the New Yorker, of course—as the “World Connoisseur’s Cocktail.”
When the Disco à Go-Go 1960s faded into the Disco Hustle 1970s, the Negroni was one of the few pre-existing drinks that made it into the revised canon, where it found itself nestled next to the Long Island Iced Tea, the Apricot Brandy Sour, the Godfather and the Kamikaze. The fact that it was violently red and the sort of thing that foreign fashion models might drink helped. Then came the foodie revolution, with its elevation of Italian cooking. Fortunately, there was a drink right at hand—its recipe was even on the Campari bottle, so you didn’t have to study. Then came the Cocktail Revolution, with its valorization of everything bitter, which happened to stretch to that most Zelig-like drink, the Negroni.
Drinks don’t become broadly popular unless they fill a need. Vermouth was in America for 40 years before the Manhattan and its minutes-younger twin the Martini used it to move the cocktail away from being a sap-blow to the head for the uninitiated to something that even an occasional tippler can engage with and wobble away not too deeply scathed. It wasn’t until the 1960s and its fetishization of the handmade and indigenous that tequila and the Margarita took off, even though the basic formula for the drink had been in American drinks books since the 1930s.
The Negroni got its shot because of all the tired men and women sitting in their wintry Chicago apartments and dreaming of a little round table under the orange trees that line Via Veneto; of tiny dishes of olives and potato chips and white-jacketed waiters; of honey-skinned blondes and tall, wavy-haired men in Ray-Bans. Until there was a dolce vita, there could be no Negroni. But once it arrived, it moved right in and made itself indispensable, just like Captain Picard.