What to drink while enjoying La Dolce Vita

In the United States, we do not discriminate when it comes to enjoying our favorite alcoholic beverages: we consume Russian vodka, Mexican tequila, Scotch whiskey, and Jamaican rum without prejudice.  In Italy, however, one spirit stands alone: that violently-red, bitter elixir that finds its way into almost every Italian cocktail.  Campari.

One’s first introduction to Campari can be a little shocking and not always entirely pleasant.  It is much more astringent than you are initially prepared for.  It’s an “acquired taste,” as they say.  However, once you acquire the taste, there’s no going back.

Here I’ve listed some of the most popular ways to experience this strange, alluring potion. 

Campari Soda

The height of simplicity: equal measures of Campari and Club Soda poured over ice in a tumbler glass.  Add a healthy slice of orange and this makes for the perfect pre-lunch cocktail on a hot summer day when you’re idling at a small table under a big umbrella in the middle of a sunlit piazza.  Or even if you’re just sitting in your living room and dreaming of such a scene.

Americano

Equal parts Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Club Soda on the rocks with an orange slice.  But, “Americano?” you ask.  If this is such an Italian drink, why the American moniker?  Permit me to shine a light on a little known detail concerning that darkest of periods in American history, Prohibition.  As we all painfully recall, Uncle Sam severely restricted the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol during these bleak years.  In the midst of the Great Depression, the average working man was cruelly denied his only respite after a hard day’s labor.  However, some clever Italian-American exposed a loophole in the law which allowed Campari to be designated as “medicinal,” and therefore legal.  It is considered a digestive, after all.  Once this discovery gained attention, a sudden, unexplained wave of "digestive aliments" swept across our great nation and the Americano was born.  Grazie, Italia!

Negroni

Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Gin.  As always, on the rocks with an orange slice or lemon twist.  This one packs a wallop, so proceed with caution.  Two of these and you’ll be singing, “O Sole Mio,” even if you don’t know the words.  For the purists, this is the only Campari cocktail worth mentioning.  It is the ideal choice before dinner to heighten your appetite and prepare your stomach for the meal.  But unless you play the mandolin and speak Neapolitan dialect, you’d better just have one.

Spritz

2 parts Campari, 1 part Club Soda, 3 parts sparkling white wine.  Served with a few cubes of ice in a wine glass, and garnished with a straw and an orange slice.  The word “Spritz” sounds a bit silly, not to mention German.  Which it is—both silly and German.  In fact, this creation comes to us from the northeast of Italy by way of Austria.  What’s more, if you drink this beverage in its adoptive hometown of Padua, it will usually be made with the sweeter Aperol instead of Campari, and they’ll inexplicably replace the orange with a big green olive.  Yuck!  Take my advice and stick to the Campari version.

Obviously there have been other Campari concoctions dreamt up by well-intended (but misguided) bartenders.  Don’t be swayed by these blatant acts of sacrilege.  Stick with the traditions, like any self-respecting Italian would. 

So now go put on your Ray-Bans, hop on your Vespa and head down to the nearest piazza to give Campari a try.  Salute!