After enjoying a Negroni as a weekend evening aperitivo I happened to notice a New York Times article discussing the cocktail – which is ever more popular and is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. When I looked into the history behind the cocktail and its name I found the story goes that it was born in Florence sometime between 1917 and 1920 with the year 1919 being the most commonly referenced. It was named after a local aristocrat, Count Camillo Negroni, who was known as an elegant bon viveur. One day the count asked the barman of the Caffe Casoni if he could modify (or fortify) an americano, a popular drink then, by substituting gin for soda. Soon the drink “in the style of the Conte Negroni” became the new rage. The recipe for the classic Negroni is straightforward: equal parts of bitter (typically Campari), sweet vermouth and gin. The drink must be stirred in a cocktail shaker and then poured into an ice-filled glass. Usually an orange rind twist is added. The alternative Negroni Sbagliato (or incorrect) came about when a barman used a brut spumante instead of gin while mixing the drink. Nowadays there are myriad, often delicious, variations on the Negroni but the original version is hard to beat.
A recent New York Times article as a comic strip was a reminder of a classic Italian dessert – trite, ubiquitous, yet delicious – the tartufo. Tartufo means “truffle” and when you look at this chocolate and ice cream confection you can understand the resemblance. The article describes the tartufo as a maraschino cherry surrounded by a half chocolate, half vanilla ice cream ball, the whole of which is encased in a chocolate shell. There are of course many variations on the ice cream, including fruit flavors. My memory of the tartufo at the Tre Scalini in Piazza Navona is of a pure chocolate bomb. The original is said to be the tartufo di Pizzo, in Calabria. This is generally hazelnut ice-cream surrounding a core of chocolate ganache. The whole thing is then rolled in cocoa powder and frozen. In general if you can find a non-industrial, locally-made version, it’s a great treat and totally worth the caloric splurge!
Porchetta is a type of roasted pork that is popular throughout the country but is best-known in central Italy where it originated. The whole pig, deboned, is arranged in layers with a lot of salt and a stuffing of garlic and herbs, usually rosemary or finocchiella (fennel weed) and then rolled and roasted on a spit. It’s sliced into chunks and usually eaten as a messy panino with crusty bread or, in Rome, in a rosetta roll or between two slices of pizza bianca. A good porchetta is absolutely mouth-watering with its mix of meat, fat, crispy skin and savory herbs. A highlight of a drive is spotting a white van with its “Porchetta” sign on the side of a road, the more trucks pulled over near it, the better. Like many foods of rustic origin, porchetta now has a following among foodies and is on the menu in many trendy restaurants. The New York Times recently featured an article about the “Porchettiamo” festival in Umbria – a porchetta paradise. To satisfy a craving here in New York, the East Village “sandwich shop” Porchetta has a good version – greasy in a good way and succulent – served on a ciabatta roll. Yum.
Many towns in Italy hold historic competitions of different types that recall past times. Perhaps best-known is Siena’s Palio, a no-holds barred horse race in the town’s oval-shaped Campo. Also famous is Venice’s “regatta” of the feast of the Redemptor. Or Gubbio’s Palio in which teams compete with crossbows. Possibly one of the most amazing competitions is the violent sport known as “calcio storico” which is played in Florence and which was the subject of a recent article in The New York Times. It is a mix of rugby, wrestling, soccer and brutality and broken bones. As the title of the article goes: a most dangerous game, but one that still has an impassioned following given the numbers of cheering spectators.