If you’re looking for a more relaxed way to enjoy cocktails, Italian cocktails could be the solution for you. Italian cocktail culture is less about partying hard, and more about lingering over drinks with good friends and good conversation.
Many Italian cocktails are meant to be enjoyed before dinner. These cocktails are known as aperitifs, and they are dry, rather than sweet, in order to stimulate the appetite. Unlike sugary pitcher cocktails, an Italian aperitif is meant to be sipped slowly, and their flavours tend to be more complex, based on wines and liqueurs rather than fruit juices and soda.
For a more laid back, sophisticated approach to cocktails, why not try some of these classic Italian cocktails the next time you have friends round for dinner?
One of Italy’s most popular aperitifs, the Negroni is made from a blend of bitter Campari, aromatic dry gin, and sweet vermouth. It is based on an older cocktail called the Americano (more of which later in the list), which uses sparkling water instead of gin.
The Negroni is said to take its name from a globetrotting nobleman, Count Camillo Negroni, who developed a taste for gin during his adventures in the USA as a rodeo clown, and on returning to his native Florence some time around 1920, persuaded his friend, barman Folco Scarselli of Caffè Casoni, to substitute the water in his Americano for gin.
Word got around about this dryer, boozier version of the classic Americano, or so the story goes, and soon everyone was ordering Negroni’s cocktail for themselves. A hundred years later, the Negroni is more popular than ever, and evidence that suggests Camillo Negroni may not actually have existed doesn’t stop most people from enjoying the story.
To enjoy your Negroni at its best, serve it in a rocks glass over ice with a twist of orange
A variation on the classic Negroni, a Negroni sbagliato uses Prosecco instead of gin. The word ‘sbagliato’ is Italian for ‘wrong’ or ‘mistaken,’ and legend has it that it was created when a harassed bar worker accidentally added Prosecco to a Negroni instead of gin. Like gin, Prosecco is dry, which makes it a good foil for the sweet vermouth, and it also adds a lively fizz to the drink, so the mistake was a fairly happy one.
In terms of alcohol content, the Negroni sbagliato represents a mid-point between the Americano and the Negroni, and like the classic Negroni, it should be served over ice, with a twist of orange. Recipe courtesy of Serious Eats.
The perfect, refreshing, low-alcohol aperitif, the spritz has its roots as far back as the 1800s, when the Austrian soldiers occupying the Lombard Veneto region found the local wines too strong and requested them with a ‘spritzen’ or ‘spray’ of water. Around the 1920s, this classic combination of wine and soda water evolved to include bitters, with the most famous being the iconic orange-hued Apérol Spritz, or Spritz Veneziano. A Spritz Veneziano is made from Prosecco, soda water and Apérol, but the International Bartenders’ Association (IBA) also recognises cocktails made with other bitters such as Campari, Cynar or Select as official Spritzes.
The cocktail that inspired the Negroni, the Americano is made from equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth, topped up with sparkling water. It was first served in the 1860s at Gaspare Campari’s bar in Milan, Italy, and allegedly takes its name from its popularity among American tourists. It is thought that the name may have taken hold during the Prohibition, when good drinks were a particular draw for thirsty Americans. Recipe courtesy of Liquor.
If you’re not yet acclimatised to the bitter flavours of the aperitif, you will find yourself on more familiar ground with this straightforwardly fruity cocktail from The Spruce Eats. Made with limoncello, pear vodka, ginger liqueur and orange juice, this cheerful tipple is served in a highball glass with plenty of crushed ice and a sugared rim, with pear slices and mint leaves to garnish.
Another member of the Americano/ Negroni family of cocktails, this Anglo-Italian hybrid from Sidewalk Shoes is made with London dry gin, vermouth, and Campari, all topped up with tonic water, for a cocktail that’s half Gin and Tonic and half Negroni.
Sweet, simple and refreshing, the Bellini is made with just two ingredients - ripe, puréed white peaches and Prosecco. It was invented in the 1940s by Giuseppe Cipriani, head bartender and proprietor of Venice’s legendary Harry’s Bar, a favourite haunt of movie stars, writers and artists, from Katherine Hepburn to Ernest Hemingway. Cipriani named the cocktail after Renaissance artist Giovanni Bellini, because the cocktail’s colour reminded him of the toga of a saint in one of Bellini’s paintings. Recipe courtesy of The Spruce Eats.
Another sweet and simple fruit cocktail, the Rossini is a variation of the Bellini, made using strawberry purée instead of peach. Like its sibling, the Rossini also takes its name from a leading figure in the Italian arts, nineteenth century composer Gioachino Rossini, presumably because his name resembles the Italian word ‘rosso’, which means ‘red’. Recipe courtesy of My Recipes.
Less well-known than some of the other cocktails on this list, the Angelo Azzurro, or ‘blue angel’ is still considered to be a classic Italian cocktail by those in the know. Made from a mixture of gin, triple sec and blue curaçao, it has a vivid blue colour, and looks great served in a martini glass with a slice of lemon peel. With its bitter citrus flavours, the Angelo Azzurro is certainly dry enough to work as an aperitif, but it also packs quite a punch in terms of alcohol content, so it is best avoided on an empty stomach. Recipe courtesy of Sip and Feast.
A relative of the more well-known Spritz Veneziano, the Pirlo is the aperitif of choice in the Brescia region of Italy. It is best to avoid referring to one as a variant of the other unless you want to become embroiled in a decades-old argument, as there is much disagreement over which drink was invented first. Both drinks are topped up with sparkling water, but where the Veneziano uses Prosecco and Aperol, the Pirlo uses still wine and Campari. Recipe courtesy of La Cucina Italiana.
Part cocktail, part dessert, the sgroppino is a deliciously refreshing boozy sorbet that tastes best straight from the freezer. It is made with a combination of lemon sorbet, Prosecco and vodka and garnished with fresh mint leaves. Recipe courtesy of The Wimpy Vegetarian.
Like Italian cuisine, Italian cocktails tend to rely on a few simple ingredients that speak for themselves, and the Garibaldi uses just two - Campari and freshly-squeezed orange juice - to create a well-balanced cocktail with bitter, sweet and tangy notes. The Garibaldi is named after nineteenth century general Giuseppe Garibaldi, who contributed to the unification of Italy in 1871, because it brings together Campari, from the north of Italy, and oranges from the south. Recipe courtesy of A Couple Cooks.
A refreshingly crisp spritz-based aperitif, the Hugo was invented by barman Roland Fruber in 2005 and became an instant classic. Made from a blend of elderflower cordial, Prosecco, sparkling water, lime and mint, the Hugo is dry enough to work as an aperitif, but easier to drink than some of the more bitter options available.
Our last cocktail, like many of the others on the list, is a descendant of the Americano and the Negroni. Il Cardinale is made with gin, spicy Contratto Bitter and dry vermouth instead of sweet, for an extra dry, complex aperitif. It takes its name from its ruby red color, which is reminiscent of the brightly coloured garments worn by Catholic cardinals. Recipe courtesy of Italy Villas.
If you find yourself developing a taste for the bitters used in Italian aperitifs, you can experiment with some different ways to use them with these Aperol cocktail recipes.