A big lifestyle change I made when I decided I needed to lose some weight was not drinking wine before dinner. It was a bad habit to begin with, and not very Italian in concept. Wine is made to go with food, and a glass of wine before dinner, especially red, just made me want to start my dinner early. I’d start the inevitable snacking on cheese and bread and hunks of salami. Bad. Wine as an aperitif is, I believe, something of an American invention. I’ve had very light whites served before dinner in Italy, but the endless glasses of thick, oaky chardonnay that get passed around at American cocktail parties make me want to send out for a bucket of Kentucky Fried chicken to go with them, not those measly mini crab cakes that always seem to circulate.
But a Negroni, there’s a nice clean aperitif, with no added sugar or fruit juice. It’s not as girly as a champagne cocktail, but also not as alcohol-packed as a martini. The original Italian creation is equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. That is what I love. The version you often get at bars here is really more like a martini, all gin (or usually vodka in the United States), a drop of vermouth, and a drizzle of Campari. That is not an aperitif; it’s an American bomb. In fact, in this country a Negroni is often served straight up, in a martini glass. I prefer it made the Italian way, in a rocks glass, with a slice of orange, or a piece of orange rind lightly flamed with a match, so the oils are released into the glass.
This wonderful bittersweet drink (Italians love its flavor) was supposedly invented in Florence, Italy, in 1919 at Caffè Casoni and named for Count Camillo Negroni, who supposedly asked the bartender, Fosco Scarselli, to spike his Americano with some gin.
The best thing about the Negroni, dietwise, is that it doesn’t go with food. There’s virtually nothing it tastes good with, it’s so bitter and startling. Even an olive is a nasty match. That makes it a great diet starter, since it doesn’t send you reaching for the salami, and it goes straight to your head on an empty stomach, giving you a little pre-dinner buzz. Very nice. And then you can sit down to eat.
I like making mine on the small side, with less than a quarter cup of each type of liquor, but suit yourself. And I have only one, as I find that too much Campari starts to back up in my throat and taste just too bitter. But one is superb. Here’s the classic recipe:
1 part gin
1 part Campari
1 part sweet vermouth
Pour all the booze into a rocks glass half filled with ice. Give it a stir. Garnish with a slice of orange, or, my preference, a long orange peel briefly passed over a lit match to release its oils.