Hooch: Bittersweet Campari is an Italian favorite with 21st-century American fans

So, the wife and I recently returned from two weeks in Tuscany. Yeah, sorry, there's no way to type that without coming off as a bit of a boastful prick. But we did it with backpacks and a shoestring budget—bargain airfare bought back in spring, local buses for getting around, and Airbnb for sleeping (sometimes for less than $50 a night). And thanks to a decent exchange rate (one Euro equaling around $1.14), eating and drinking were cheap, too. It helps that most restaurants offer a quaffable vino della casa for less than $10 a liter and wait-staff salaries are paid by the management, not through tipping.

And then there's the pleasure of aperitivo, the Italian tradition of socializing in the early evening over light drinks and salty nibbles. It's somewhat analogous to our happy hour but without the two-for-one enticement just to get a quickie load on. It's more about the chatter than the chugging. The drinks are supposed to set you up for dinner—to get your gastric juices flowing—and Campari beverages abound. I came to love getting my belly ready for fresh pasta with this classic Italian liqueur whose candy-red color belies a pleasingly bitter, orangy taste. Again, bargain: Most Campari drinks were less than three bills.

Perhaps the most common way to serve it is the simple Campari and soda, which is so popular in Italy it has come premixed in cute little bottles since the 1930s. Just pour over ice and top with an orange slice. Pairing Campari with the light, sparkly white wine prosecco is another pleasing tipple. The Negroni has long been a fave cocktail of mine, though with its three alcohol ingredients (Campari, gin, sweet vermouth), it might be a little too potent for the true spirit of aperitivo. (You've got a lot of house wine to drink with dinner, so pacing is important.) I had one anyway, at a sidewalk cafe in the shadow of Lucca's 11th-century cathedral.

The assertive taste and color of Campari, first cobbled together out of top-secret ingredients back in 1860, has plenty of fans amid 21st-century American cocktail culture as well. Or so I learned when I sat down with Baltimore Bartenders' Guild president, Brendan Dorr, at the B&O American Brasserie where he stirs and shakes.

 

"It's amazing to see how Campari has stuck around and remained popular," he said. "We use it to add a bitter, dry, and herbaceous element to drinks." Dorr has poured it into everything from Champagne cocktails to Hefeweizen beer. "The lemony citrus note going with the bitter orange was nice," he said of the wheat beer cocktail. It's funny he mentioned this because I had already tried Campari over ice with an IPA. The two bitter beverages played well together, making a refreshing shandy I will put into rotation when warm weather returns.

Campari even has culinary applications. Dorr has used it in salad dressings and it's a regular component of the mignonette the B&O serves with its oysters. "One way-outside the box application I've heard of is Campari sorbet, though I've not tried it," Dorr added. No matter, I wanted to stay safely in the box during my visit—and was anxious for my first taste of the classic Campari cocktail, the Boulevardier. Think of it as the Negroni's darker cousin, as the gin is swapped out for whiskey. Bourbon works well here, but Dorr mixed me one with George Dickel rye and Carpano Antica vermouth.

Where the Negroni gives sharp botanicals amid the bitter, the Boulevardier brings rich, earthy depth. Fantastico. I've found my new favorite Campari drink. Something to sip this winter while firing up an iPhoto slideshow of our Tuscan adventure.

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