La Dolce Vita

A Drinker’s Tour of Milan & Turin

We go on a bar crawl of some of Italy’s oldest bars and explore the roots of the country’s cocktail culture.

Vincenzo Lombardo/Getty

For whatever reason, every few decades a select sector of the American drinkerati suddenly gets fixated on the classic Italian way of tippling. It started with the Great Vermouth Eruption of the 1880s, popped up again during the Americano-sipping postwar years, and enjoyed a successful sequel during the Godfather days of the 1970s.

Whether there’s something in the water that makes America’s dedicated epicurean drinkers periodically fancy all things low-alcohol, bitter and herbal or it’s just that they’ve simply gotten tired of being beaten over the head by all those high-proof whiskey and gin, gin and whiskey drinks, I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with macchie solari—how do you say? Sunspots.

In any case, it’s back. Cocktail bars are spinning out Negroni variations with all the rattling mechanical energy of so many Dickensian woolen-mills. They’re stocking artisanal vermouths and obscure old aperitivi and amari by the dozens and slipping them into approximately 68-percent of the drinks on their menus. Even the gentle, simple old Spritz is standing once again in the limelight, blinking bemusedly at its good fortune.

Being half Italian myself and having spent a fair amount of time in that often-delightful, sometimes-maddening country, I’ve been harboring certain doubts as to how much all of this has to do with traditional Italian drinking as actually practiced by Italians in Italy. In a quest for more data, I took a recent opportunity to spend a couple of days investigating classic cocktail bars in Milan and Turin. Not only are these the respective homes of the pillars of Italian mixology, Campari and vermouth—the two active ingredients in the Americano, Italy’s first contribution to world cocktail culture (in fact, that drink was originally known as the “Milano-Torino”)—but they’re the country’s first modern industrial cities, where the Italian school of mixology as we know it first came together, back in the late nineteenth century. Plus, they’re pleasant, have excellent food, and are only an hour apart by ultrafast express train. (Truth be told, that train, which hits 300 kilometers per hour—186 mph—is alone almost worth the trip to Italy, in a let-us-gaze-upon-nice-things-we-can’t-have sort of way.)

I started my investigation, if you can call ping-ponging between pleasant bars with a few friends an investigation, in Milan, the larger, busier, more big-city of the two. I find the best way to explore a city’s historic bars is to have a drink at the oldest one, have another at the next-oldest, and keep going until you’re caught up. Occasionally, sheer proximity will make you hit a spot out of sequence, but the general plan is sound.

The two rules I have in Italy when exploring old bars are drink what the locals drink and avoid the siren song of the café table. You’ll never learn anything about a place sitting outside at a table, as pleasant as it might be. Besides, drinking standing at the bar is a hell of a lot cheaper (the price multiplies for table service) and it’s where you’ll find the locals.

The oldest bar on the Milano part of the agenda is Pasticceria Cova (Via Montenapoleone 8), founded in 1817. As the name implies, it is indeed a pastry shop, but it also has a lovely, Empire-style stand-up bar where the cocktails—try the Zucca Shakerato, amaro Zucca shaken with a couple of dashes of vanilla liqueur and ice—are executed with precision and elegance. In all classic Italian bars you will be given something to nibble on with your drink. Green olives and potato chips are the traditional combo, which is absolutely fine. But if you go in the late afternoon or early evening, the aperitivo hour, you’ll get a lot more. There will be little squares of pizza, pastry cups holding anything from olive paste to caviar to potato salad, fried tidbits, salumi, cheese, on and on. The fancier (and more expensive) the bar, the more luxurious the ingredients, although some of the biggest spreads can be found in the most unassuming places. Cova is quite fancy, and their aperitivo spread is correspondingly deluxe.

A ten-minute walk from Cova brings you to Bar Jamaica (Via Brera 32), in Brera, which used to be the city’s Bohemian neighborhood and is now mostly full of fancy little boutiques selling leather goods and such. Opened in 1911, Jamaica offered the two essentials for an Italian bar at the time, an espresso machine and a telephone. Nowadays, it still has a beautiful brass and veneer bar, but is otherwise without fanciness. A neighborhood bar, if a historic one: when the neighborhood was full of artists, so was the bar. But score one for Bohemia: its Negronis might be the largest and strongest in town.

Of similar vintage but rather more grand is the beloved Camparino (Piazza del Duomo 21), in the Galleria in the center of the city. In fact, with its magnificent, Art Nouveau woodwork and mosaic walls (vines and Tropical birds, Impressionist-style), Camparino is a perennial contender for most beautiful old bar in the world. Yet if you stand at the counter you’ll be drinking your Americano or Campari Soda alongside a steady parade of locals of all types, from the Armani-clad swell to the guy who drives the street sweeper in the Piazza del Duomo. Unlike with Cova or Bar Jamaica, the bar at Camparino was built purposely to serve iced drinks in the American style (it had the first refrigerated soda-water system in town). This was something new: along with all the dollars Italy was bringing home from selling its vermouth in America came the American way of mixing iced drinks to order, rather than premixing them and bottling them, as was traditional in Italy. Camparino is a monument to that moment of cultural exchange. While you’re there, if you want another drink after your Americano try a Zucca Lavorato (“Worked-on Zucca”), with amaro Zucca and Campari or, for the dry version, Zucca and Centerbe (another, rather more potent, amaro).

So far, none of these drinks are particularly alcoholic, at least not for someone used to lapping up Old-Fashioneds, Dry Martinis and Manhattans. In fact, it sometimes seems that classic Italian bars have signed a secret pact to see how little alcohol they can successfully introduce into a mixed drink. Take the Campari Shakerato, which I sampled around the corner in the Galleria in the historic, and most elegant, Savini (Via Ugo Foscolo 5). Campari (25-percent alcohol by volume), the sum total of the ingredients, is simply shaken with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. Some add a splash of this or that, within limits of course: an amaro, dry vermouth, the normal Italian ingredients. Still, when in the interest of science I manage to persuade the dignified, white-jacketed bartender to splash in a little smoky Laphroaig Single Malt Scotch, his eyebrow barely twitches. The drink was surprisingly tasty.

In fact, it sometimes seems that classic Italian bars have signed a secret pact to see how little alcohol they can successfully introduce into a mixed drink.

If Savini, with its 1930s Art Deco décor, is all about aristocratic understatement, the next stop, Bar Basso, belongs to the postwar La Dolce Vita period. Opened in 1947, it was, and to some degree still is, a fashion-crowd destination, although it still opens at 9 in the morning for those who want an espresso at the bar, and even when the beautiful people are around it still functions as a neighborhood spot. It also manages to get even less alcohol into its signature Negroni than anyone else in town. Indeed, its famous Negroni Sbagliato (“Mistaken Negroni”), created there in 1972, would barely qualify as a cocktail here in the United States. The mistake in its composition being the substitution of prosecco for gin, thus making it “more pleasant” (as the recipient of the original one is said to have remarked), and far less intoxicating. And, in fact, it IS more pleasant, particularly in the oversize goblets they serve it in—don’t worry, they’re far from full. Of all the places I visited, Bar Basso comes closest to the American idea of the stereotypical Italian cocktail bar; to the thing American bars are trying to channel.

If you’re like me, after all those light, sweet-bitter aperitivi, you might just need a cleansing Fitty-Fitty or Sazerac or Daiquiri or one of their modern spinoffs. Fortunately, Milano, being a fully up-to-date city, has its share of fully up-to-date cocktail bars; bars where the influence has gone the other way, coming in from New York and San Francisco (and, to be sure, London). Bars where the drinks are strong and original and the ingredients house made. The best places to start are the jovial, skilled and very, very popular Mag Café (Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 43) and Dario Comini’s excellent, almost unclassifiable (Modernist Afro-Tiki?) Nottingham Forest (Viale Piave 1). If you want more, do what you would do in any town and ask your bartender where else you should go.

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Turin is smaller, quieter, more intimate than Milan, and rather more manageable, although it still abounds in old drinking spots; many of them, in fact, are considerably older than those in Milan. I won’t list them all, but such a list would have to include Al Bicerin (Piazza della Consolata 5)—try the drink after which it’s named, a mix of espresso, hot chocolate and cream, no alcohol; the 1842 Caffé San Carlo (Piazza San Carlo 156), in which everything that can possibly be gilded is gilded; Baratti & Milano (27 Piazza Castello), a specialist in fine chocolates for 160 years with a very attractive bar that makes a fine Martini; and, a couple of doors around the piazza from that, the glorious Mulassano (Piazza Castello 15).

Mulassano has been in the same location since 1907. In 1925, it was bought by Angela and Onorino Nebiolo, who had spent a number of years in Detroit, and turned the café into a cocktail bar, although over the years it has drifted back into the café orbit. Still, with its dark, intricately-carved wood; its marble and brass, and its warm, hospitable staff, it’s one of the loveliest places I know to drink an aperitivo—try the Mulassano Spritz, with the house Alpine liqueur—and nibble on the usual tidbits.

Beware, though: Mulassano closes at eight o’clock, as do in fact most of the older cafes. If you want a bar after that, the speakeasy-style Mad Dog Social Club, in the basement at Via Maria Vittoria 35/A, does a fine job with contemporary cocktails.

Indeed, the best way to see the old bars is to start off at 1:30 PM or so with lunch—say, a plate of agnolotti al plin con burro e salvia (tiny, beef-stuffed ravioli with butter, sage and cheese) at the fine Pastificio Defilippis (Via Lagrange 39), there since 1872. Then you can amble over to Piazza San Carlo for an after-lunch digestivo at the unique Stratta, five minutes away (Piazza San Carlo 191).

Stratta, open since 1836, might be the best place there is to understand the roots of Italian drinking. Small but impeccably-stocked, the bar occupies the establishment’s right wall, like the others a sonata of carved wood, gilt and mirrors. The other walls, however, and the counters before them, are devoted not to Bacchus, the Roman god of drink, but to Mellonia, the Roman goddess of sweetness. Stratta is, in fact, a high-class candy store, and as you stand at the bar, sipping a rare amaro or artisanal vermouth or stimulating the system with a mezcal cocktail (they do that, too), a steady trickle of civilians will be coming in to select some chocolates, grab one of their exquisite pastries, or join you at the bar to throw down a quick espresso.

The selection of sweets isn’t confined to standard Italian staples like chocolates (hard chocolate is a local invention), the little, gold foil-wrapped pillows of chocolate-hazelnut heaven known as gianduiotti (also a local invention), or gaily-wrapped hard candies. There are also the antiquities, holdovers from a different world: multicolor, dime-sized sugar lozenges scented with violets or lavender; tiny, polished brown and grey river pebbles that turn out to have seeds—fennel, cumin, anise—at their cores; silver foil-coated sugared almonds; and, best of all, these little pellets of crunchy sugar surrounding liquid drops of traditional Italian liqueurs—maraschino, the herbal rosolio, crèmes of this and that.

What seems odd now would have been quite normal in 1836. In fact, the confectioner’s art is one of the two main pillars of the Italian way of mixing drinks, along with the apothecary’s art, which stretches back all the way to the medieval alchemist’s laboratory. Sweet and seductive and bitter and medicinal. You can see the intersection between confectionery and mixology in the little paper handbills in which Stratta wraps its hard candies, which have a list of all the flavors they used to have (alas, many are no longer available). There are all the standard fruit ones (and some not so standard), from orange and cherry to Colmar pear. There are anise and clove and bitter gentian. And there are also spirits—ratafia (this term can cover many things, all of them boozy; here, it probably means rum) and Cognac—and liqueurs—curaçao and maraschino—and mixed drinks, including zabaglione and punch. And, of course, there is vermouth.

In fact, the confectioner’s art is one of the two main pillars of the Italian way of mixing drinks, along with the apothecary’s art, which stretches back all the way to the medieval alchemist’s laboratory.

As Stratta shows us, a traditional Italian bar is, at heart, a liquid candy store, and works pretty much like a candy store in Brooklyn or South Philly or Oakland, with a little alcohol thrown in. Here in the United States, to step through the portals of a bar is to enter what is almost a world apart. A bar is a point of embarkation, the place you go to catch, or at least flirt with catching, the night train to Drunkistan. Everything is structured to take you away from things like work and politics and the people you see everyday.

In Italy, bars do everything possible to integrate drinking—just a little, mind you—into the business of the day. Bars are places you drop into to read the morning paper, to get your mid-morning espresso, to set yourself up yourself for dinner. They’re extensions of the home and the office, not antidotes to them. If you’re boarding anything in an Italian bar, it’s the shuttle bus to dinner.

In other words, no amount of vermouths, amari or Spritzes; no number of Italian-style cocktails on the drinks list, will make an American bar into an Italian one. Bars, after all, are made by their customers, and for better or worse Americans are not Italians.

(Many thanks for guidance and rounds to the Brera Street Irregulars: Leonardo Leuci, Fabio Massazza, Mattia Pastori and Fulvio Piccinino. Cin cin!)