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I remember my first brush with Campari. I saw it listed as an ingredient for something called an Americano. I was a freshly minted 21-year-old, eager to make up for all those years drinking bottom shelf vodka by trying “the good stuff”—whatever that might be.
My Americano came. It was weird. It was wonderful. I ordered another.
Five years and hundreds of Negronis later, I find myself in Milan—the home of the Campari Group itself—for three days. Armed with a thirst for the bitter red stuff and a couple of leads, I embark on a quest to find the best Negroni on Campari’s home turf.
My first stop is Bar Basso. This Milan establishment, which first opened in 1933, famously served as the accidental birthplace of the Negroni Sbaglatio. The interior is filled with carved wood and reflective surfaces: its exterior is ringed by round tables enveloped in cigarette smoke. The waiters still wear white shirts with black bowties.
I begin with the obligatory Negroni Sbagliato before ordering its older, more gin inclusive-brother. While drinking my Sbagliato, I notice others guzzling Campari-red concoctions from enormous goblets. I imagine that they must be drinking Campari Spritzes or Americanos. If those were truly Negronis, they would be appropriate for Andre the Giant only.
My Negroni arrives, and I am wrong. It’s Andre the Giant-sized.
It is not the greatest Negroni I have ever had. It reminds me of my own, early Negroni-making days: Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth and a strong, inexpensive gin. The garnish is a thick slice of orange. This is a thoroughly utilitarian Negroni. It’s not showcasing a specific gin or style of vermouth, but gets the job done. And at 10 Euros for what should be two drinks, it’s even a bargain.
While I could likely make a better Negroni at home, I can’t fill my apartment with loud Italian conversation or theatrically smoking Italian men in double breasted suits. Bar Basso does not serve the perfect Negroni, but it may be the perfect place to drink one.
The next afternoon finds me at the historic Camparino bar, located in a corner of the glass-covered gilded shopping paradise that is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The site began as a restaurant opened by Gaspare Campari—yes, that Campari—in 1867. The Camparino Bar emerged on the spot in 1915, opened by Gaspare’s son Davide.
The bar’s tiny interior has changed little since its last refurbishment in 1925. Its painted walls are the most striking feature: they are decorated with Klimt-like sprays of flora and lit by hanging chandeliers. Waiters in cream-colored jackets and black bowties mix red drinks at a furious pace. Most are dispatched to the crowd seated outside, which includes me.
It’s no surprise that all its red tablecloth-covered tables sit outside of the establishment: they share a view of Milan’s imposing cathedral. And should you grow bored of gothic spires, the gateway of the Galleria provides some of the best people-watching in Europe.
There’s a heavy crowd, and the constant sound of spoons striking espresso cups threatens to overpower the din of conversation. Camparino’s menu features all the classics, along with some dubious-sounding creations like the “Campari Orange Passion,” made with orange juice and cane sugar.
The Negroni I order comes in a double rocks glass. It’s made with Cinzano vermouth, another piece of the Campari Group portfolio. This is the Negroni in its pure, undiluted form, and likely little different from the ones that have been sipped in this spot for a century. At 14 Euros, I concede that it is a little overpriced. But then I remind myself to look at the Cathedral as I take my next sip.
With all their old-world charm, Bar Basso and Camparino would be strong contenders for the most Wes Anderson-like bars in Milan. Claiming that title is frustrated by the fact that Milan is the only city with a bar actually designed by Wes Anderson—Bar Luce.
My schedule only allows me to pay Bar Luce a visit at 9am. Though the steadily growing crowd is working over croissants and espresso, I’m mentally preparing to make a Negroni my first meal of the day.
Bar Luce, which opened in 2015, is one of the least real-seeming places I’ve ever encountered. Every element of the bar, from the funky formica tables to the baroque wallpaper that covers the walls and ceiling, feels like the backdrop to an intense confrontation between Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. It’s hard to believe that they serve real drinks to real people, let alone Negronis.
But the closer to the bar I get, the more optimistic I feel. Its shelves are lined with an impressive collection of aperitifs and amari.
The bartender, who is greatly amused by my choice of morning beverage, makes a Negroni. He uses Beefeater Gin and Carpano Antica Formula vermouth. He pours it into a double rocks glass filled with ice cubes that look far more substantial than those served at Bar Basso or Camparino. It is garnished with both an orange wedge and a slice of lemon.
I pick up the drink, and notice that it’s well-chilled. I take a sip and enjoy its equal measures of sweet and bitter. Adding to the experience are the dueling citrus aromas of lemon and orange.
And as I drink, I enjoy the fact that Wes Anderson, cinema’s ultimate perfectionist, has had a hand in creating the perfect Negroni.
This article originally ran on September 27, 2017.
Photos by Ryan Twardzik