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.
When thinking of food that represents spring, fresh new vegetables come to mind immediately. In Rome one of the most frequently seen spring vegetables are fresh fava beans, often eaten raw with pecorino cheese. A favorite springtime dish – almost a symbol of the beginning of spring – is vignarola. It consists of a mix of fave, fresh peas and artichokes that are sautéed in olive oil with spring onions. The name is said to come from the word vigna (grapevine) because the vegetables used were typically grown in the spaces between the grapevines. As in most Italian dishes, there is no one recipe written in stone: the vegetables are generally in equal proportion with the artichokes prepared Italian-style, outer leaves and fuzzy choke discarded until only the tender parts remain so that they can be sliced. The most traditional recipe also uses shredded lettuce. Some people add mentuccia (a wild mint similar to pennyroyal) and some versions contain guanciale or pancetta. It’s a simple, bright-green, fresh and delicious medley that can be a starter, main course or a side dish.
In Italy Carnevale means not only costumes, masks, playing jokes, parties and parades but also eating lots of sweets at a time of year when excess is celebrated. Most of these – like frappe (or chiacchiere), castagnole and cicerchiata – involve different forms of fried dough. Instead, the Neapolitan ricotta cake called migliaccio is a baked dessert. Its origins can be traced to the Middle Ages and its name derives from the Latin word miliaccium – the traditional bread made of millet flour. Up to the 1700s the term indicated a sweet made by peasants using millet and pig blood (considered particularly nourishing). The Catholic church discouraged the use of blood because it associated it with pagan traditions. Gradually it was substituted by the use of eggs and ricotta, eventually becoming today’s cake which is made with semolina flour. Traditionally the cake is cooked in a copper pan but nowadays it’s more common to see it in an aluminum cake tin. It’s a light(ish) cake, not too sweet, usually with a citrus fragrance. There is no one “original” recipe but this one makes a nice airy cake and a good way to participate in the revelries.