Maybe it’s an age thing – solidly entrenched in the ‘middle’ years, (but feeling ten years younger, and if you ask Mrs. Pez, I’m acting many years younger than that – never let go of your inner-14-year old) but it seems a day isn’t right if I don’t pour myself some sort of reward in a glass. This invariably coincides with the transition from work duties to dad duties, and usually falls conveniently around cocktail hour.
A negroni in Bolgna’s Piazza Maggiorre – is there a finer way to end a trip?
No matter where I’m at or what I’m doing, like millions of men before and around me, I really do look forward to settling back with a glass of something strong, cold, tasty, and intoxicating. It’s funny how the act of taking a cocktail can enhance almost any situation, and how location can enhance almost any cocktail. I’ll bet you can remember more drink-specific events than you’d think…
While the ingredients remain the same, there’s something about a negroni in Italy that tastes better than anywhere else. And my annual trip to the Giro offered a few nights of boozy delights just waiting to tickle my tastebuds. Here are a few that stood out…
Don’t be fooled by the glass, that’s a negroni, and it lasted all night.
My trip this year was a couple days shorter than usual, and would be full speed ahead from the get go – I usually like a day or two on either end to get over jet-lag and then relax a little at the end of my stint chasing the race. I landed in Rome and had an afternoon of power shopping (shoes & shirts) before hitting the open road for Napoli and the Giro start. The problem was that my first dinner in la bell’Italia came at an hour that my body thought was mid-morning – and after being awake for some 36+ hours, there was just no way I could handle anything stronger than a beer and glass of red wine with dinner.
By my second night I was getting through the jetlag, had filed my first story from the Giro’s presentation, and set off with my driver Mino to explore Napoli’s expansive promenade and its seaside ristoranti. The evening was for me the first warm night of the year, and we finally settled on a bustling restaurant with the requisite large outdoor seating area for some grub & viewing of the lively local scene. I was still a bit loopy, but was so damn thrilled to be in Napoli for the first time that the emotion took over and I plunged in for my first negroni of the trip.
Now that’s how a tomato should taste…
It was big – the biggest I’d have while there, so big I nursed it right through my meal – which in itself was one of the best I’ve had. When I’ve been away for a year, it’s expected that the first things to order are what I miss the most and know will gob-smack me right back into the cuisine-nirvana that is this country.
My insalata caprese was huge – a meal in itself – with fresh ripe buffalo mozzarella cheese, plump leaves of basil, and the tastiest pomodori I could recall. The tomatoes were so good I directly sent a pic to Mrs. Pez, who was directly envious. I guessed the secret to the juicy and robust flavors were due to their local and recent origins – unlike the kind I’m used to at home that were picked days ago and ripened on a truck as they travelled who knows how many miles to reach my local big-chain grocer.
I followed this with my favorite Italian meat dish – the tagliatta di manzo – usually a prime cut of steak, grilled and sliced, served with shaved parmesan & rucola… Unfortunately the first steak was delivered highly over cooked (it’s best served red inside), and having had disastrous experiences sending food back in Italy before, my hopes were pretty slim that I’d get anything edible back… But they astounded me and returned with a perfectly cooked, incredibly flavorful and hot tagliata. The kicker was the juiciest lemon wedge I’d ever had the pleasure of squeezing – the juice seemed to run on forever – and no wonder with the citrus trees in full fruit on every corner…
Stage 3 ended in Marina di San Salvo and after a long day in the car, followed by the slowest wifi of the trip, I was good and ready for a big glass of booze. The town itself turned out to be so small that we couldn’t even locate the centro… Our hopes of finding a cool place for dinner in the town square were replaced by finding the first thing that was open.
I sized up the bar on the way in, and although it was unkempt, I’d spied the gin, sweet vermouth and cinzano I’d need for tonight’s reward… my mouth watered in anticipation. Things however took a turn for the worse when the lady serving us gave me a big blank look upon hearing my negroni request: “I’m not a barista…” she sighed, but listened in earnest as I explained the recipe.
I know – even the picture looks terrible.
Too bad she used dry white vermouth instead of the sweet red kind… In classic Italian fashion she denied any wrong doing – and while I could clearly taste the difference, there was nothing I could do but accept her word that she’d made the drink correctly. I soldiered into it, but gave up after a few sips, and notched this as the potential low point of my trip.
The beauty of any low point, is that it’s usually followed by a very nice bounce back, maybe even a high point – and that’s what happened the next day when we drove to Matera and spent considerable time lost in the wilds of the Italian south, eventually surfacing at the hilltop town of Pisticci (and NOT scraping the car up on the way). By 8:30 that night I was settling into one of the best negronis I’d had.
Then the next day we stumbled upon one of the coolest restaurants I’ve ever seen and enjoyed another outta-the-park negroni and meal. Matera is an ancient town originally founded by cave-dwellers – the soft limestone of the region and natural geography made it easy to dig shelters into the rock faces. Today it’s a heritage site and many of the caves have been preserved, but even better is that many are also in use as part of the town’s tourist appeal.
Our taxi driver tipped us off to the Ristorante Diciannovesima Buca (19th hole in Italian) for a cool place for drinks and dinner. The entrance is unassuming, and you descend a spiral staircase off the town’s main square, down about two levels, then enter what turns into a vast series of caverns hewn from the town’s bedrock – much of the place sprawls beneath the piazza above.
Mino and I flank the swashbuckling Michele – owner of 19th Buca.
The owner Michele was a very Pantani-esque character who was more than happy to give us a full tour and explained that one of the caverns used to be the town’s main cistern, and in ancient times was filled with water. When he acquired the place it was still quite full, and took 17 days straight of pumping water to empty. They’ve turned this part of the place into a bar/ Lounge, and mini-golf course – hence the name.
Inside the cistern, two levels below the Piazza, is a club and mini-golf course.
We had the mixed meat grill and it was fantastic. If you ever get to Matera be sure to check it out.
After stage 7’s finish in Pescara – won by a truly deserving Adam Hansen – we had a 200km drive to our night’s stay in Fano. Being our own Alessandro Federico’s hometown, he’d booked us into THE place to stay, and we were duly and warmly welcomed by the staff of the family run Hotel Astoria.
We arrived a couple hours after the stage finished, and were due at Ale’s house for a fine homecooked meal. Not wanting to impose on my host, nor wanting to miss my reward for a big day on the race, I elected to order a negroni from the adjacent bar while I was getting checked in. I dare say two barmen were as proud of this drink as I was pleased to drink it. That negroni went down very nicely while I showered up and changed for dinner.
My last night on the trip was in Bologna, and after a 5 hour ride and a very pleasant stay with the folks at Hotel Dory in Riccione, I’d arrived a couple hours later into Bologna than I’d planned. Luckily my hotel turned out to be a short walk up the main shopping strada that connects to the city’s central Piazza Maggiore – where I’d stayed in 2008. Always in search of new places to enjoy my daily negroni, I asked advice from the hipster hotel staff, only to find their recommendation tucked away in an isolated alley and sadly lacking in patrons. No worries, I soon found a seat in a large café on the main piazza and duly ordered my last negroni of the trip – which I fully intended to savor in slow sipping splendor.
The sun was lowering behind the buildings across the square, and no sooner had my dink been delivered than the café staff appeared with urgence and began collecting the tables and chairs as a few drops of rain began to fall. Being from Vancouver, this was of little deterrence to me, and as the wind started to pick up I wondered what all the fuss was about.
A couple minutes later the skies opened up and an afternoon squall passed directly overhead. I should know better than to doubt local knowledge at this point in my career, but took up residence at a sheltered table, next to a mature couple I imagined to be having an affair (which for some reason I imagine is quite common in Italy…). The rain, the empty piazza, the canoodling couple, and a perfect negroni – another fine memory made possible by my quest for this delicious drink.
I’ve since had several more fantastic negronis back home, and even received a great email from a reader who shares not only an affinity for the cocktail, but I’m sure a similar experience with a lot more of you guys out there:
Sitting in the lounge last night waiting for the Dauphine highlights but the other half had a firm grip on the remote watching some cookery show on our Channel 4. All of a sudden I hear the words ‘Negroni’ and the chef starts a segment extolling the virtues of your favourite Italian drink.
I couldn’t help but think of your articles on the drink and pictures that have shown up in various travel features. I had to show the other half the site on the I-pad who was puzzled at my excitement but thought it definitely looked like a good drink.
Check it out:-
Keep up the great articles and photos that present races and travels in a completely different way to other sites and magazines.
- Jonny Roberts
With that – I’ll sign off with my latest recipe on the negroni – something I’ve been honing and tweaking for a long time:
Two parts each:
• Gin (I find a London dry gin works best)
• Sweet Vermouth (Martini Rosso, Cinzano, Carpano)
One part each:
• Aperol (I’ve found this really takes the edge of a full part of campari, and while by no means necessary, it does make a slightly mellower version that some palates will prefer – ie: It’s a great way to get your lady into the drink and you some canoodling of your own.)
Fill a sturdy lowball glass with ice and pour in the drink.
Finish with a squish of fresh orange, stir, and sip.
Repeat as needed.
Thanks for reading and let me know your own negroni tales – !