Italy has always fascinated me. As a kid I was drawn to that boot-shaped country where the Romans began their great empire – history provided the initial allure. But I quickly learned there was more to Italy than ancient ruins. I would spend time flipping through picturesque magazines or listening to romantic Italian music or watching AC Milan soccer matches just to hear the beautiful gibberish that erupted from the fiery bellies of the feisty commentators. With an Italian language minor in progress, I finally paid my first visit to Bella Italia when I was 19 years old to visit my best friend who was spending a semester in Rome. I can still remember that first taxi ride. As the cabbie effortlessly zipped through the streets of the Eternal City and dodged both cars and people, he shouted obscenities that were accompanied by an array of flawless hand gestures. Wide-eyed, palms sweaty, and not understanding a damn thing (Italian minor?), my heart thumped with fear and excitement with each and every brutto bastardo! that ruptured from his beautifully foul mouth. And that was the end. Game over. I was officially in love. Pure and utter amore.
Twenty years later, my heart continues to thump for different reasons. While it was love at first sight, today it’s love at first sip – and taste – with every unique visit. My Italian experiences still include visiting friends but have evolved into more eating and drinking (lots of eating and drinking), as we catch up and reminisce. I fall in love all over again. There’s no shakin’ this country out of me, so when I meet a fellow American that understands the true meaning of la dolce vita, my heart races just like it did during that first cab ride. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my good friend, Leslie Zemeckis.
Leslie is an amazingly talented writer, author, historian, producer, director, and actress. I admired her right away for those reasons. It was a bonus for me when I realized how much she adored Chicago, my beloved Windy City. That was plenty for me. She’s a Cub fan by marriage. That sealed the deal. And then one day I learned about her own personal Italian love affair. That was a friendship.
After you read Leslie’s awesome and thorough perspective on Italian drinking culture and learn about Procacci, one of her favorite bars in the heart of Florence, you’ll undoubtedly want to go read her new book, Behind The Burly Q, the history of burlesque in America. It’s sexy, saucy, fascinating and historic…just like Italy.
Six Degrees of Separation from Cocktail Time
By Leslie Zemeckis
Summer in Italy. Hot, blinding sun, gelato-bearing tourists, construction workers smoking, stripped to the waist, deeply tanned women in 6-inch stilettos negotiating the cobblestone streets. All this is Florence – and more. And everywhere in this medieval city with a labyrinth of a spider web-like streets that connect both the ancient and new woven together, history of food wine and culture, somewhere it is aperativo time.
The Italians have a myriad of customs – rules really – when it comes to eating and drinking. Cappuccino is ordered before 11 am; no parmesan cheese will be given with orders of pasta containing fish. One Tuscan chef refused to cook us lasagna with anything other than béchamel cream as pomodori sauce in lasagna was from the sud (south of Florence was south to him), thus we would eat béchamel. Limoncello was for “old ladies.” Though I disagree heartedly and saw plenty of young couples enjoying it in Capri. Prosecco is before dinner not at. And on and on it goes. Trying to negotiate the customs – and each region in Italy is divided with strict edicts of acceptable habits – puts one at peril of being labeled a stranieri (foreigner).
And we won’t even speak of the reaction one receives if one does not drink alcohol. Perche? Why? When one friend – an ardent member of a Twelve Step program – demurred a cocktail at lunch, the Italian across the table said “I don’t drink either” as she poured a glass of wine. Of course drinking wine isn’t drinking. In Italy.
I’m always delighted – I’m not sure why – at old men in the local bar (that’s Starbucks to us) drinking the first bicchiere of wine at 10 in the morning with their cornetto. I’ve also witnessed truck drivers pulling over at the gas station and ordering a beer while they fill up. This does not delight me and I often question why it is I drive in Italy.
Digestives, known as amaro, are bitter drinks here in the land of the grape, claiming to settle the stomach after a large meal. Imagine overeating in Italy? Since Roman times the Italians have been indulging in an orgy of consumption. Emperor Nero had a rotating dining room built in his house of decadence. Maybe that is where he perfected the art of cooking poisonous funghi, mushrooms, like the ones he served his step-brother so he, Nero could take over the empire at age 15, and thus really begin killing people. Guests that Nero actually liked – so much so that he hired a parade of prostitutes both male and female to “perform” during and after courses – dined on stuffed peacock and roasted swan with liters of Alban wine from silver goblets while the gardens were lit with burning Christians. Today Alban wine is still popular, known as Frascati, a delicious white wine made from the hills around Rome.
Certainly the corpulent emperor and his guests would have had need of a good digestive to settle their stomachs. Today we have the excellent Amaro Lucano, which claims an infusion of 37 herbs, including cinnamon and mint. Another popular digestive is Fernet Branca with a whopping 43% alcohol content which might explain why it is said to cure all stomach ailments – after a shot I’m sure you will have nothing to complain of or even remember having felt unwell. Fernet Branca is bitter and minty with a hint of licorice.
In Tuscany one enjoys a variety of amber colored vino santo (the holy wine) after dinner. Served with cantucci, hard almond cookies that are dipped in the superbly sweet wine. With dinner, of course, wine is drunk, though never too much. Italians have the endearing habit of leaving 1/4 full glasses as they depart restaurants knowing there will always be another wonderful bottle of wine domani (tomorrow).
If they Spritz doesn’t originate from Venice the Bellini most certainly does. The prosecco and peach puree drink was named after a 15th century artist Giovanni Bellini because he painted a toga-wearing saint whose sheet was the color of the new cocktail. Bellini’s Holy Allegory painting hangs around the corner and across a square or two at the Uffizi.
Harry’s Bar opened in 1931 by two less likely partners; a Veronese-born bartender by the name of Giuseppe Cipriani and Harry Pickering a rich Bostonian. The two met in Venice and the rest is drinking history. Known not only for the Bellini Cipriani, they were also famous for their Montgomery Martini so dry the Sahara feels like a jungle, and named after British Field Marshall Montgomery.
Late summer afternoons in the warm weather begins with a colorful aperitif. Said to “open one’s appetite” before la cena, dinner they are becoming increasingly popular In the United States. At our local bar, and everywhere in Italy, there are a plethora of red and orange bottles on the shelves from which to chose from; all are herb based and lower in alcohol content allowing the Italians to sit around pre-dinner for hours chatting and sipping on Cynar – which has the distinction of being either a aperitif or digestive – and made of artichokes then mixed with herbs. Medicinal I’m convinced. There is also the ever-present Campari.
Negroni is another pre-dinner cocktail made with gin, red vermouth and Campari. Named after Count Camillo Negroni, who is said to have been, variously “a cowboy, banker and a riverboat gambler” (J Skeekey Fish by Tim Hughes). In the year 1919 the count was imbibing at his favorite bar in Florence, bored with the Americana which was all the rage at the time. He asked the bartender to add gin and ecco, here is the Negroni. The indulgent Orson Wells was supposed to be a devotee explaining about the drink “the bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.” Tennessee Williams, a lover of all things alcoholic, included a scene with Vivian Leigh and a young Warren Betty in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, enjoying their Negroni. I feel so literate just drinking it.
Fill a tall narrow glass with cracked ice
Pour 1 part good dry gin
1 part Campari
1 part Italian sweet vermouth
Stir well and garnish with an orange twist and pretend to be a count or countess.
My favorite people watching café drink is the Spritz, a light concoction of prosecco, acqua frizzante and Aperol. Aperol is a Kool-Aid colored orange created in 1919. Seems that was a very good year for cocktails. It is very of the moment due to a fierce social media campaign.
Aperol is wonderfully bitter in a kind of tonic water way made of herbs and “root liquer.” Which must mean it is healthy. Vero? The Spritz has sprung up on every bar menu across Italy this summer. Considered to be a “Venetian staple” though Trieste and Padua, two other northeast Italian cities, also claim the Spritz as their creation. Italy is notoriously segregated when it comes to food and drink, many – a la our chef – disliking epicurean delights from other regions – if one could even find them. However the Spritz had become acceptable throughout the country.
The Spritz – though I’m sure the proud Italians would deny it – was actually started in Austria and then transported back across the Alps or whatever separates the countries. In Vienna there is a thriving Italian presence. I heard the language spoken on all streets of the Golden Quarter – Vienna’s uber chic shopping district. It the streets weren’t lined with gold they were lined with numerous Italian clothing and shoe shops, not to mention a number of authentic Italian restaurants.
Vienna also has Procacci which is an expanded version of my favorite wine bar in all of Italy. Stumbling into neo-classical designed restaurant during a snow storm a couple years back I was entranced when I saw the sign “Procacci.” And though it was delicious the reason I went was because in Florence (that Negroni-inventing city) is the original Procacci, a tiny wine bar – slash Italian version of a specific mini deli.
Situated on the via de Tornabuoni – a post shopping street in the heart of Florence lined with designer stores such as Fendi, Pucci and Gucci and all other expensive ucci’s is this exquisite and tiny respite from the gelato-eating shorts-wearing tourists that clog all points from the Ponte Vecchio to the Basilica Santa Croce where the likes of Michelangelo and Galileo are buried.
Firenze Procacci’s interior is pure art nouveau – the shelves slight less jammed since the crises that has all Italians shaking their heads over their wines, contemplating the their 12% plus unemployment level. Founded over 100 years ago Procacci is one of the oldest “meeting places” for the Florentines. Which is a simple way of saying “Honey I’m running out for an errand for a minute” and ducking into this discreet little bar for a respite, a tryst or secret assignation. Though it is listed in all the tourist books the tiny wine bar is intimidating to most with a mere three tables in this pocket size bar. But don’t let that stop you. I consider this a major must and bring all my visitors while in Florence. A light glass of prosecco and a plate of their sinfully delicious not-to-be-reproduced at home – trust me – panini tartufati. The Tartufati are small homemade finger sandwiches made of the lightest softest bread, spread with a thick layer of butter and truffle. There is nothing better or fresher or more sinful.
I always seem to make it there at 11 in the morning and share the space with an chicly dressed elder couple sipping prosecco – old lovers reunited after several decades I imagine – or there might be two impeccably coiffed 50-somethings (which is the new 40-somethings) women in tight pencil skirts and chain handbags tapping pink manicured nails against the marble table tops. Two principesse I imagine.
Smelling of earthly delights Procacci is a break from the humidity that permeates Florence in summer one sits in quiet beside two tall glass windows that look at on others walking by, never dreaming of the calories that await inside. More tartufati per favore.
Procacci is now owned by the biggest wine company in Italy, the Antinori family and as such offers an excellent selection of wines if one wants to skip the prosecco.
Prominently displayed on the shelves of Procacci are the esteemed bottles of Tignello, a high-end red wine made from a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes. Delicious. The Tignello vineyard lies at 1150 feet above sea level and was one of the first Chianti wines that did not include white grapes. I have also enjoyed a lovely rosato, “Scalabrone” a light rose wine by Antinori. Fruity and bright pink it compliments my tartufati.
To deter a moment it is thought that many of the ancient red wines resembled today’s rosés. To get technical for a moment, it is because today’s winemaking extending the maceration (DIFF) and hard pressing was not done by Nero and his sort – they didn’t have the time to brew longer one never knew when they might be burnt in the garden or served poisonous snails. The pressed the grapes nearly after picking – usually by lovely (and clean I’m sure) servants’ feet that only barely colored the wine. Thus rose.
The prestigious Antinori clan trace their roots – grapes and all – back to 1180 when the first member of the family is recorded making the stuff. Moving from a small paese (village) in Italy to the more modestly cosmopolitan Florence the Antinoris first got into banking as all good Florentines did. It was after all the center of banking and silk weaving. There is plenty evidence of silk weaving alive and well on the via de Tornabuoni. Across the street Loretta Caponi displays fine line, children’s dresses and antique embroidered hand towels. A few doors down Ermanno Schervino’s windows bulge with the finest men’s and women’s clothes of cashmere, lace and leather.
Post tartufati and prosecco one can stroll down the street. Built between the designer shops are many grand palazzo with interlinking ownerships and intriguing history. There is the Palazzo Tornabuoni and the Palazzo Strozzi, now a museum but built by Filippo Strozzi the Elder, a rival of the Medici. When Filippo died prior to its completion, Cosimo Medici gleefully took it for himself. Today Prince Girolamo Strozzi is a maker of fine wines. The Strozzi trace their heritage to the owner of that mysterious smile “Mona Lisa” modeled by their relations Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo – whose family crypt down the street is being drilled into (as we speak) to extract some DNA. Scientist hope to match the fair Lisa to her son, buried beneath and solve the mystery of the identity of Mona Lisa once and for all.
When not poisoning their rivals the Medici of Florence produced wine. Records from 1398 note that the earliest incarnation of Chianti was as a white wine. In 1716 Cosimo III (but who’s counting) de Medici issued an edict declaring three Tuscan villages Castellina, Giole and Radda all in Chianti country to be the official producers of Chianti. Sadly the Medici’s were all killed off or died of various renaissance diseases by the opening of Procacci in 1885. Recently the son and grandson of Procacci pled guilty of tax evasion in the US, ad Dolce & Gabbana have recently been found to be guilty of tax evasion – with fines in the 300 million.
Dolce & Gabbana are around the corner from Procacci. Six degrees from shopping anyone?
Leslie Zemeckis is author of Behind The Burly Q, the history of burlesque in America.