Until the 1850s, the Italian peninsula was occupied by a patchwork of independent states—the parts of it, that is, that weren’t owned by Spain and Austria. After a good deal of fighting, the foreign powers were ejected and the other states came together (well, more or less) to produce the Kingdom of Italy. This unification had business and banking implications: suddenly, capital was available to finance modern factories and build railroads to move what they produced to market. This made it possible for artisanal manufacturers of traditional products to export what they made. Among the first to take advantage of that development were a handful of companies in the former Kingdom of Savoy, in Italy’s northeast, who made a slightly-fortified, sweetened and botanical-infused wine they called “vermouth.”
In the late 1860s, this “vino vermouth,” as it was identified on the label, began appearing in America. We knew sweet, fortified wine pretty well, and we knew botanical beverages from our experience with gin and with bitters. But this stuff was something new. And what do Americans say to new booze? That’s right, “Cocktail!” We mixed it with ice and bitters, strained it into little glasses and twisted scraps of lemon peel over it. Indeed, the first Vermouth Cocktail on record is from 1868, when the famous Delmonico’s restaurant in New York served it at a luncheon for a women’s literary club; that was right after Martini & Sola, the largest exporter, had begun shipping their vermouth here.
Word of this American practice soon got back to the home offices. Now, Italians have never had a problem with bitter drinks—“altro che,” as they say; anything but. The country abounds in these concoctions, almost to the point of overflowing. And, it turns out, they had no problem with mixing drinks. Only their way was to do it backstage, as it were, and present one with the finished product, all bottled up with a nice label on it. Before long, all of the various vermouth-makers and bitter-makers were offering their own versions of pre-bittered “vermouth all’ Americano,” or, simply, “Americano,” with American flags all over the label.
But, it turns out, a little of the American way of doing things also rubbed off on Italian drinkers of the late nineteenth century: many of them preferred their Americano their own way, with their choice of vermouth, their choice of bitter, in their chosen proportion, and maybe with a little ice and soda in there, too (Italy is a hot country, after all). The Americano was more an idea than a recipe.
That changed in the 1920s, when Campari, the most forward-thinking of the Italian bitters-makers, took over the Americano lock, stock and barrel. And indeed, there’s nothing wrong with a Campari Americano at all, particularly if you keep the Campari in the freezer and add it to cold vermouth and soda. But there are other paths through the woods.
Here, then, is one of those paths. I call it the “Americanino,” the “little American.” In part, that’s because it’s a short drink, not a long one. But it’s also because that was one of my nicknames as a child (ironic if you know me: I’m not a small man). My father, you see, was born in Trieste, in northeast Italy, and he also had family in Lentini, a small but very, very old town in eastern Sicily. Way back in the 1960s, when I was a child, my father and my (Massachusetts-colony, Bunker-Hill D.A.R.) mother would take my brother and me to Lentini for the summer. Back then, Americans were rare in Sicily, and my brother and I were exotic: when we accompanied one relative or another to the market, the bakery, the (fabulous) gelateria, wherever, people would point us out: “guarda—I Americanini.” At the time, that was a very good thing to be, and I like to remember that.
This Americanino combines the lightly-sweet, “bianco”-style white vermouth (it will say “bianco” on the label, unless it’s French, in which case it will say “blanc”; if it says “dry,” that’s not the style you want here) with Braulio, an Alpine-style bitter (drier and a little more assertive than the fruitier southern-Italian style ones; if you can’t find it, try a 50-50 mix of Fernet-Branca and Montenegro) and a splash of soda water, an old, 1890s trick for brightening up stirred, all-booze drinks. It makes a fine aperitif: low in alcohol, long in flavor. Salute!
Ingredients:2 oz Cinzano bianco vermouth1 oz Amaro Braulio (or other Alpine-style amaro).5 oz Splash sparkling water, chilledGlass: Coupe, chilledGarnish: Swatch of thin-cut lemon peel
Directions:Add all the ingredients, except the sparkling water, to a mixing glass and fill with cracked ice. Stir well and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Top with a half-ounce splash of chilled sparkling water and twist a swatch of thin-cut lemon peel over the top.