The Italian Job

By Joseph Toman |

Follow our writer’s mythical quest to determine the true origins of one of the world’s most famous cocktails. . .

One measure of gin. One measure Campari. One sweet vermouth. Finish with a twist of orange. The Negroni. It sounded simple. But the simplest cases have a way of turning complicated in a hurry.

I was on assignment in Florence, Italy, to track down the origins of this famous cocktail. Christmas lights looped through the narrow streets and open squares. The glow warmed the old Renaissance buildings, golden and youthful in the night.

I flipped up the collar of my trench coat against the cold and moved through the holiday crowds of the plaza, ducked onto a winding side-street no wider than an alley. I was making for a bar. Caffé Casoni. My contact was supposedly waiting there.

It didn’t take me long to find him – sitting in solitude along a carved bar in the caffé. All around, shadows played in corners and hidden alcoves against the earth-tones of wood and brick. An old barman in a white shirt and arm garter polished a glass behind the bar.

“Nice night for an apéritif,” I said casually, using the code I’d been given.

“An apéritif can be a digestif for the man between lunch and supper,” came the reply.

Yup. That was him. Sleek black suit. Close-trimmed beard with salt-and-pepper hair oiled back.  My source certainly looked the part.

“Jimmy.” My companion introduced himself as I took a stool beside. “Jimmy Bond.”


“That a Negroni?” I asked, pointing at the bright red cocktail before Mr. Bond.

“This, my dear boy,” Jimmy said in a thick Scottish accent, “is an Americano. The forerunner to your Negroni”

“Milano-Torino!” the barman shouted without looking up from his work.

Jimmy shot the barkeep an irritated glance. Evidently this was an old dispute between the two men.

“Yes,” Mr. Bond continued. “It was once called the Milano-Torino. Campari from Milan. Vermouth from Turin – and I prefer Perrier as the soda water. It was drink much favored by the Americans in Italy after the first Great War. And so received the name.”

“It’s’ call the Americano for the amaro! Yelled the barman, finally looking up. “Amaro means bitter!”

Jimmy rubbed his eyes in frustration, as if dispelling a headache.

“I’m not getting into this with you, Fosco…” Jimmy groaned.  “Would you just make this gentleman a Negroni, if you please?”

Fosco grumbled something about the British as he shuffled over and began mixing the cocktail.

“The films about my life, in fact,” Mr. Bond continued, “would have me drinking martinis all day. But my biographer, Mr. Fleming, was quite clear that I prefer the Americano in the cafés.”

“But what about the Negroni?” I asked as Fosco placed my cocktail before me. “I was told you had the information I was looking for.”

I examined the apéritif carefully. A sheen of citrus oil from the expressed orange peel clung to the surface. Luscious red over clear gems of ice. I sipped. A perfect balance of bitter and sweet. Aromatics of gin and citrus. It was easy to understand the enduring popularity of the legendary cocktail.

“Half the answer to your riddle stands before you,” Mr. Bond motioned with an open hand toward Fosco, the bartender.

“I make the first Negroni,” the old man grinned.

“But the other half is past due,” Jimmy went on cryptically, frowning in concern. “I am, in fact, beginning to worry. He is seldom late.”

“He’s always late!” Fosco corrected.

Jimmy bowed his head slightly and grimaced, mastering his aggravation.

“But I am already here,” came a rich, accented voice from behind, startling us.

“Camillo!” greeted Fosco merrily.

A tall, striking figure emerged from a shadowed alcove. Top hat. Curled mustaches. Waist-coat and gloves. The stranger smiled at my amazement, tipped his cap with a slight bow.

“May I present,” Mr. Bond intoned, “Count Camillo de Negroni.”

“It was here!” the Count began theatrically. “In this very café. The year was 1919, and I had recently returned from my adventures in America where I had made my way as a riverboat gambler and rodeo clown. Fosco was tending the bar.”

“I was here!” Fosco agreed.

“I had picked up a taste for the stronger spirits during my time with the cowboys,” the Count went on, “and asked the venerable Fosco if he could… amplify the Americano a dash. Substitute the soda for gin.”

“A stroke of genius,” Jimmy approved.

“And thus was born—”


Jimmy, Fosco, the Count and I all jerked our heads toward the door. And into the Caffé Casoni stepped a tall figure in the full military parade uniform of the 19th Century, complete with sash and golden epaulettes. His long, pointed goatee was set sternly at the Count.

“You are no Count!” bellowed the stranger.

“Now wait just a minute here,” I protested. “Who are you, anyhow?”

“I am the Pascal Olivier Negroni. General of Corsica and true Count of the Negroni family! And it was not here, but in West Africa that I – not this rake – that invented the negroni.”

The General paused for effect.

“The year was 1857. Senegal—”

“Hold up!” I protested. “Stop everything for a sec. I’ve got Milano-Torinos and Americanos. James Bond and old bartenders. From Florence to West Africa. Two Italian Counts – one of which apparently worked in a Wild West show. I don’t think I can keep up with this.”

“If only Q had constructed for me some device,” Mr. Bond mused, “Some contraption by which we could verify these common disputes that gentlemen have in barrooms.”

That’s it! I thought. My smart phone! A quick search of the World Wide Web should shed some light on the subject. I set about the search.

Times slipped past as I scrolled through page after page. Fosco made the negronis as Pascal, Camillo and James sat sipping patiently, chatting about their Christmas plans. And finally, I looked up from my query with what must have been dejection.

“So?” Jimmy asked. “What does is say?”

“Well,” I answered flatly, “It says you’re all right”.

A bated silence hung about our cast for a long moment.

“Well, what’a did you expect?” asked Fosco, breaking the silence. “It’s’a Italians and di internet.”

(Photo courtesy Franzconde)

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