Evening drinks in Milan, Italy’s sleekest city, are more main event than prelude. A guide to four bars where the aperitivo includes stellar snacks, ambiance and a few surprises (Harvey Wallbanger, anyone?)
By CHARLES PASSY
AH, THE WORLD’S great drinking cities: New York with its trendsetting craft cocktail bars, Dublin with its welcoming neighborhood pubs, Munich with its vast beer halls.
But Milan? The northern Italian city, known as the country’s financial and fashion hub, may not be as globally celebrated for its cocktail culture, though the Milanese know better. Here style and socializing are so important to everyday life, it’s only natural that drinking would be artfully considered and play a significant role. Specifically, it plays a role starting at around 6 p.m., when Italians—not just in Milan, but throughout the country—break for what’s called aperitivo.
More than simply the Italian equivalent of an aperitif, a pre-dinner drink, the aperitivo combines alcohol—often a cocktail built around a bittersweet, appetite-whetting Italian-made spirit like Campari —with a light bite or two, typically offered by the bar as a free extra. Milan often takes the ritual to extravagant heights. Its bars concoct their cocktails with decided ambition, playing with ingredients and presentation. Just as important: Some of the more famed or popular bars dramatically up the food component, laying out extensive buffets or serving a bountiful platter of snacks to every guest. Certain bars even roll out a late-night aperitivo with a selection of desserts. Eager to learn just how varied the age-old custom is in Italy’s most modern city, I combed the streets on a recent visit for the best in aperitivo, finding four spots that stood out—bar none.
THE CLASSIC APERITIVO
A bright neon sign beckons passersby into Bar Basso, in the quiet, student-oriented Città Studi neighborhood. Inside, the establishment, which first opened in 1947, still has the inviting feel of an old-school gentlemen’s club, where bartenders, in white shirts and ties, reign over a chandelier-topped bar. Everything here has seemingly been in place for decades.
The cocktails exude a vintage quality, too—lots of old-fashioned favorites, including the Negroni Sbagliato ($10), the signature Italian sip the bar introduced to the world in the early ‘70s. This variation on the classic Negroni cocktail (equal parts Campari, gin and sweet vermouth) substitutes a spumante, or sparkling, wine for the gin. The whole thing came about as a bartender’s error—indeed, sbagliato translates as “mistaken”—but one that inadvertently gave the Negroni a sweet, bubbly lilt.
If Negronis, traditional or “mistaken,” are not your thing, explore the rest of the voluminous drink menu for other tasty options such as the Fragolino ($10), a strawberry-based cocktail. As for food, this aperitivo will disappoint those looking to stuff themselves silly—expect the basic Italian drink accompaniments of potato chips, olives, some crostini-type offerings. Still, by virtue of its yesteryear appeal and continued emphasis on making cocktails with care, Bar Basso deserves a place on anyone’s aperitivo itinerary. Via Plinio 39, barbasso.com.
THE CRAFTY APERITIVO
Rita & Cocktails
If Bar Basso represents Milan’s cocktail past, Rita & Cocktails, which opened in 2002, exemplifies its trendy present. This perennially buzzy nightspot, located in the bohemian neighborhood surrounding the Naviglio Grande canal, places a big emphasis on craft-cocktail wizardry: Think drinks with multiple ingredients and with descriptions that come off more like bursts of eye-rolling poetry (“Only for those who are not afraid of memories,” reads one—and, yes, the bar prints a version of the menu in English).
The room itself, with its light wood floors and paneling, looks a little like a sauna with booze-lined shelves. Try to secure a table (or a spot at the bar), and make a point of ordering one of the Campari-based drinks since that’s where Rita really shines. Consider, for instance, the Giulietta ($9), combining Campari with Dom Benedictine liqueur, limes and a syrup made from a dark-brown sugar, among other ingredients. Beyond such signatures, the menu can veer in odd directions, offering drinks made with everything from carrot juice to a cardamom tincture. The cocktails’ names distinguish themselves too: Take the Henry Fonda ($9, London dry gin and St. Germain liqueur) or the Saffron Bastard ($9, vodka and saffron syrup). Rita also excels in the food department. An assortment of complimentary goodies accompanies every drink order: Mine included beef tartare with oversize capers, a mini pizza, green olives and an overflowing portion of crudités. Like a good many Milan bars, Rita also has a small dining menu. Via Angelo Fumagalli 1, facebook.com/RitaCocktails .
THE SUAVE APERITIVO
Places like this posh hangout, located in the even-more-posh Bulgari Hotel Milano, give Milan its reputation as Italy’s sleekest, most fashionable city. The hotel, a joint venture between the luxury-goods brand and the Ritz- Carlton hotel group, is an island of civility, tucked away on a side street not far from Teatro alla Scala, Milan’s storied opera house. Glass walls that overlook a spacious garden afford the bar area of Il Bar, which also has a dining room, a contemporary feel. In pleasant weather, the patio itself, almost like the lair of a modern monarch, is the place to be. (And if the weather turns chilly, the wait staff will rush to provide you a blanket.)
You’ll pay for the privilege of drinking here. The signature cocktail, the Bulgari, costs a whopping $23. This refreshing affair in the aperitivo tradition combines Aperol (Campari’s lighter sibling), gin and fresh orange juice, among other ingredients. But you’ll consider it a bargain when you factor in the treats that accompany it—a two-tiered mini feast of small plates with selections that change regularly. On my visit, the offerings included a dish of quality mozzarella, some seafood skewers (I especially loved the marinated octopus) and an array of fried vegetables (crisped to perfection, as the Italians are wont to do). The crowd—well-heeled locals mingling with international business travelers—makes for entertaining people watching between bites. Via Privata Fratelli Gabba 7b, bulgarihotels.com
THE ARTY APERITIVO
Located within the Prada Foundation’s contemporary art space in an industrial neighborhood, Bar Luce looks a little like an art installation itself—an odd mash up of an old-fashioned Italian coffee shop with the twee, offbeat sensibility of the American film director Wes Anderson. Mr. Anderson doesn’t own the joint, but he did design it, imbuing it with a 1950s aesthetic. That translates into a vivid-pastel color scheme and Formica countertops and a couple of pinball machines (themed around some of the director’s movies). The aperitivo here is more of an all-day affair, meaning you don’t have to wait until the evening to have a drink and snack. The relatively short cocktail list includes long-forgotten American favorites like a Harvey Wallbanger alongside a selection of Italian-style “spritz” cocktails (which get their bubbles from soda water or sparkling wine). Other drinks adhere to the modern mixology trend: Try the Zazou with absinthe, Cognac and a rhubarb liqueur ($10).
The free aperitivo culinary accompaniments add a note of generosity: Few bars will set a bowl of macadamia nuts before you (and that’s not to mention other savory offerings, including fat green olives and Marcona almonds). You needn’t pay admission to the Foundation’s art museum to enter the bar, but wandering around the sizable space, designed by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA architecture firm and host to a rotating selection of arresting exhibits, is a fine way to build up an appetite for an aperitivo. Largo Isarco 2, fondazioneprada.org/barluce-en/?lang=en
Source: Wall St. Journal.