My ancestry, as far as I’ve been able to determine, is primarily Scottish. But I am convinced that somewhere along the line, maybe generations back, there was an Italian in the Henderson mix, because I love all things Italian!
Back in the early to mid-80s I drove an adorable Italian convertible, a Fiat X 1/9. It was orange, which was fortunate as that bright hue made it easy to spot when it was broken down by the side of the road. My fiancée, and now wife, always despised the little car – and celebrated when I finally traded it in. (My mechanic, on the other hand wept profusely; repairs to my Fiat practically paid his daughter’s way through college.)
To this day, I have an affinity for things Italian: I wear Italian sunglasses (Persols – like James Bond), love all types of pasta, and my favorite cologne is from Florian Café in Venice. Recently I have been lobbying for a new convertible, gazing longingly at Fiat Spyders online. Since I’d like to stay happily married, the Spyder is likely a “sogno irrealizzabile” (pipe dream).
Other than cars, my wife, too, loves all things Italian. We often say our favorite place to visit is Venice. Several decades ago I won round-trip airline tickets to Milan. While we had planned and hoped to someday visit Italy, the windfall of free airfare got us there quite a bit sooner than we expected. We practically memorized Rick Steves’ PBS show on Italy and took his book along for reference. We made not a single hotel reservation, relying on Rick’s book to show us the way to suitable lodging. It worked – in Florence we actually ran into the man himself, at a small inn he had recommended!
It’s not only the food I love but the drinks as well. My absolute fave is the classic Negroni. With just three ingredients, and two of definite Italian heritage, it’s simple and delicious.
1 oz. London dry gin (I use my preferred Beefeater)
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. vermouth rosso
Add the ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice. Stir to chill and mix.
Strain into a glass filled with ice. Garnish with an orange spiral.
This cocktail, quite simple as I said, is a complexity on the palate. It’s bitter, sweet, dry and imminently refreshing all at once. Stanley Tucci, in his series “Searching for Italy” created a bit of a kerfuffle when he suggested substituting vodka for gin. He also suggested doubling the gin (or vodka) instead of sticking with the traditional (and perfetto) 1:1:1 ratio. I’m not even going to mention his “enhancement” of this drink by adding a dollop of balsamic vinegar (which, admittedly IS an Italian product, but really …).
A fun fact about Campari … invented in 1860 by Gaspare Campari (now there’s an Italian name), the secret recipe includes as many as 80 bitter herbs, aromatic plants, fruits and water. One ingredient is no longer a secret since it’s no longer used. Up until 2006 the red hue of this spirit was a result of carmine dye – a dye that is made by crushing female cochineal insects. I guess this a fun fact only if, like me, you started drinking Campari after 2006.
The Italians are a proud people. They take tremendous pride in their food, their drink, their art. Go to any small village and there will be someone who wants you to sample their local wine or taste their cannolis. In southern Italy lemons grow wild just about everywhere. One variety, limone di Sorrento , is traditionally used to make limoncello. This is, like mixing a Negroni, a simple process in which lemon peels are macerated for several weeks in a neutral grain spirit (like vodka). When ready, the peels are discarded and the spirit finished by adding sugar and water.
Typically served icy cold as an aperitif, limoncello can also make some interesting cocktails. For an all-in Italian drink try this.
5-½ oz. Peroni beer (Italian lager)
1-½ oz. limoncello
4 oz. lemonade
Fill a pint glass with ice and add ingredients starting with limoncello and ending with beer. Stir and garnish with a lemon slice.
My pasta water, thoroughly salted, is at a boil, and I’m ready to plunge in the tortellini. I’m making a sauce Giada De Laurentiis swears is foolproof. But, then, unlike me, she truly isItalian. So for now -Ciao!
P.S. I was working as a poll worker some years back when Sal (just one name, like Cher or Madonna) bounded into the polling place all excited. He immediately announced that he was thinking about opening a neighborhood pizza joint and asked “don’t you guys think that’s a good idea?” We sure did, Sal. We sure did. RIP.