Negronis and Pasta, A Lesson On Pairing Italian Cocktails with Italian Food

One of Italy’s best-loved national products is wine, vino as the Italians say, and, as of 2020, Italians are the second biggest per capita drinkers of wine in the world. After all, something has to help wash down all that delicious Italian food, and the country’s many regional wines do a fine job of it. 

But did you know cocktails and liqueurs are also integral to Italian culture? Italy’s long-standing tradition of spirit production dates to the Middle Ages when people would “take” spirits as medicine in hopes of curing illnesses. However, it was monks living in frigid monasteries who began imbibing in a more modern way, using spirits to keep them warm and happy during the cold winter months.

By the early 20th century, the cocktail culture in Italy and the world was in full swing. Italian vermouth, (fortified wine flavored with aromatic herbs) became an essential ingredient in bars, restaurants and even homes, since it was customary for people to offer a glass of vermouth to guests when they arrived at the door.

Since then, there has been an evolution (you could say a revolution!) with many types of Italian spirits having become popular: amaros, bitters, gin, and grappa, to name a few. Today, Italians enjoy cocktails made with these types of ingredients for the traditional aperitivo, during which they say cheers—cin cin—over drinks and appetizers in the early evening hours. The aperitivo signals the end of the workday, a time to relax, socialize, and get the appetite revved up for dinner. 

Typically wine is served at dinner, but why not continue the evening with cocktails?

At a recent dinner hosted by the Italian Trade Agency at Lucciola on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, award-winning mixologist Valentino Longo paired Italian-inspired cocktails with the superbly prepared house-made cuisine of Executive Chef Michele Casadei Massari.

The four-course pairing was a delicious way to experience how other beverages, besides wine, can be enjoyed with food. And in this case, it was all about high-quality Italian ingredients, of which there is an abundance. One of the evening’s most noteworthy combinations was a unique Negroni paired with buttered spaghetti and anchovies—the cocktail and pasta both topped with dried red pepper threads. 

Valentino Longo was awarded North America's Most Imaginative Bartender for 2020 at the Tales of the Cocktail trade conference.

A Negroni is a classic Italian cocktail with three principal ingredients: gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. Longo calls his take on this popular cocktail a “ B.E.V.O,” in which he adds the savory sweet taste of basil to Cocchi Torino Rosso sweet vermouth, Bitter Meletti Rosso, and Luxardo London Dry gin.

“In Italian, Bevo means to drink,” said Longo, “but in this case, it also stands for basil and extra virgin olive oil, which the Negroni is infused with.”

Afterward, Chef Massari explained his innovative method of cooking pasta: no boiling required! All you do is cover it with water for about 90 minutes.

“You can add pepper, dried tomato, any flavor you want,” says Chef Casadei Massari, “and when you bite into your spaghetti, it will explode in your mouth. The flavors come from the inside. I call this pasta ‘inside out.’”

Here’s a video of Chef Massari demonstrating this unusual way of cooking pasta.

At the end of the dinner Massari said, “I think it’s about cooking what you like the most and pairing it with what works best.”

Good advice! If you feel like a cocktail, then have one. If you feel like wine, go for it. What always works best, in my opinion, is what brings you the most pleasure. Be open to experimentation, try new ways of eating and drinking and see what makes you happy.

B.E.V.O. Negroni Recipe

1 ounce Luxardo London Dry gin

1 ounce Meletti Bitter Rosso (bitter)

1 ounce Cocchi Torino Rosso (vermouth di Torino)

1 teaspoon Basil-infused extra virgin olive oil

Fresh Basil

Instructions: Combine the gin, bitter, and vermouth in an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Stir in basil oil and garnish with basil (or, ahead of time, make ice cubes with a piece of basil in each).

Interested in learning more about Italy’s most famous cocktail?  Pick up a copy of Matt Hranek’s terrific book, The Negroni: A Love Affair with a Classic Cocktail.

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