The Milanese call it “happy hour.” Happy hour, untranslated, in English.
But that’s where the similarities to our hallowed American institution end. For starters, look at what’s in the rail: Campari, Aperol, bianco vermouth, Punt e Mes and bottles of prosecco and other lightly sparkling wines on ice. It’s not exactly the high-octane stuff most American bar-goers are used to.
Then take a gander at the crowd. This is not a shot-and-beer crowd or a Captain-and-Coke crowd. Look at those coifed men with red pants and brown shoes—and sweaters draped around their necks—nursing bitter, orange-colored drinks. They spill outside the bar, onto the sidewalk, into the street, chatting up the lithe, tan, sunglassed women who drive Vespas with high heels and puff on cigarettes, causing you to rethink your whole position on smoking. No one seems to be in any hurry, and 6 p.m. happy hour usually stretches well into the evening.
Finally, look at the prices. Milanese happy hour does not involve two-for-one Coronas. The prices actually go up a few euros during happy hour, when a Campari and soda averages about six euros ($8 or so). And, wait, you can’t pay the bartender directly. Be sure to go to the cashier—she’s the really bored woman dressed in Prada over there behind the counter—and get a receipt. Now, you may have your aperitivo.
Once you have your Negroni Sbagliato or Aperol Spritz in hand, that’s when you realize what you’re paying for—the “complimentary” snacks. In Milan, at places like ATM or Radetzky or Bar Brera, they don’t just toss out a bowl of nuts or a tray of lukewarm hot wings. There are perfect little tramezzini and panini, made with the finest speck and bresaola and culatello and prosciutto. There are wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano, squares of polenta covered in gorgonzola and three kinds of olives. There are caper berries, slices of melon and artichoke hearts. There are platters of saffron-tinted risotto Milanese, tortelli di zucca in butter sage sauce and black linguini made with squid ink.
I spent a lot of time at happy hour years ago as a student living in Italy. I’d join the crowds hopping from bar to bar and piece together an amazing meal on my meager budget. I’ve continued to mingle in the crowded happy hours on my return visits, but I’ve never been able to solve this one great mystery: With so much great food at happy hour, how do the fashionable Milanese still fit into their body-hugging leather pants?
Streets of Gold
In Italy, happy hour is an everyday ritual that satisfies two innately Italian traits at once: It involves an opportunity to enjoy excellent food and drink, and it provides a wonderful chance to be on display, to see and be seen in beautiful public spaces. In the fashion and culinary capital of Milan, this takes on interesting dimensions.
It’s a late afternoon in Milan and I find myself drinking an Americano cocktail (Campari, sweet vermouth and a lemon twist, on the rocks) within the inner sanctum of the Dolce & Gabbana men’s store, sitting at a sleek black bar operated by Martini & Rossi. There are black leather sofas and a blood-red dragon on the dark mosaic floor and, of course, ambient techno music. When I enter from the Corso Venezia, one of Milan’s toniest shopping streets, the clerks eye me and my shabby attire suspiciously. When I tell them I’ve come for happy hour, they dismissively wave me past leather belts worth more than my entire wardrobe, back to the Martini Bar.
The Dolce & Gabbana store is in the middle of the Quadrilatero district, also known as the “golden quadrangle,” an area filled with posh designer stores. This is a dangerous neighborhood to begin happy hour, especially while the stores are still open. For instance, I’m generally shopping-averse. At home, I buy all the clothes I need for the year—mainly T-shirts and flip-flops—in about an hour and a half. But when I’m in Milan, something strange happens. I once caught myself considering buying a pair of red pants that cost more than $300. And in the Miucci Prada store, I watched a teenager matter-of-factly buy a handbag for $17,000.
After my spin through the golden quadrangle, I move on, walking 15 minutes toward the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio to one of my old favorites, Bar Magenta, a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled Milan institution for over 100 years and one of the city’s best meeting places. All walks of life mingle here, from dreadlocked college kids to professionals and older men, sipping vermouth on the rocks, Campari and soda, or Negronis. At happy hour, there are always several types of housemade pasta available, and a guy behind the counter slices meats like prosciutto, speck, bresaola and culatello.
At a certain point, I always try to end up on the Corso di Porta Ticinese, the main thoroughfare of Milan’s most bohemian neighborhood. The scene is more down to earth, and the crowd is more eclectic. The centerpiece of the neighborhood is the piazza of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Here, hundreds of people congregate on warm evenings, drinking Campari and Aperol cocktails, prosecco or beer. Most of the action takes place at Exploit, which sits directly under the so-called Diesel Wall, a gigantic billboard for the fashion company masquerading as art. The entrance to Exploit is deceivingly tranquil, under an awning, obscured by hedges. Inside, however, it’s a mob scene during happy hour. People crowd around the bar where waiters feverishly serve complimentary mini-pizzas, vegetable tortes and panini. The best thing to do is get your aperitivo, fill up a plate, retreat outside to a sunny place in the piazza and do what everyone else is doing: people-watch. There are no tables outside, but people are sprawled everywhere, leaning against planters, sitting along the Roman walls or standing in groups.
As the evening wears on beyond happy hour, much of the crowd remains in the piazza, drinking imported beers like Becks and Carlsberg, strumming guitars or kicking a soccer ball with the lighted ruins of Roman columns as a dramatic backdrop.
Back in Time
About 90 minutes west of Milan by train or car, Torino, the birthplace of vermouth, flaunts an age-old happy hour scene. Antonio Benedetto Carpano first produced vermouth here in 1786, soon followed by Francesco and Giacomo Cinzano in 1816, and by Alessandro Martini and Luigi Rossi in 1863.
Though most people have heard of these historic brands, they are not the only vermouths to be found in Torino. In the 19th century, nearly every major café in Torino produced its own vermouth recipe, and some of these formulas exist to this day. I visit the small but stately, century-old Café Mulassano on the Piazza Castello, with its lovely marble bar. Café Mulassano claims it was the favored gathering place of the Royal House of Savoy. The white-jacketed waiters still serve the bar’s own sweet vermouth—a recipe dating back to 1879—a red, bitter house liqueur called Liquore delle Alpi, which looks and tastes like Campari. I take my Mulassano vermouth on the rocks, per tradition in Torino, and enjoy a complimentary plate of little panini and tramezzini sandwiches and olives.
After Mulassano, I walk a few blocks on sidewalks covered by ornate porticos to the grandest of Torino’s historic cafés, the San Carlo, which opened in 1828. I walk between its gilted pilasters and under the huge, glitzy chandelier, and a tuxedoed bartender mixes me a Bamboo cocktail (sherry, sweet vermouth and orange bitters) served up in a cocktail glass. I start chatting with a local man who tells me I should check out Eataly, a new food emporium situated in the old Carpano vermouth distillery near the edge of the city. Apparently, one of the hippest new spots in town happens to be the supermarket.
Eataly was built with the support of Slow Food, the international movement that started in the Piemonte region. Besides the very best Slow Food–approved artisan foodstuffs on offer, there are nine casual dining spots, each focusing on a prime ingredient, like pasta, seafood, meats and cheeses, vegetables or pizza. On the top floor, a museum celebrates Carpano vermouth and Punt e Mes. The entire bottom floor is given over to wine, beer and spirits, including a wine bar and a craft beer bar. In the wine section, you can fill up your own liter jug with respectable table wine for 2 euros.
Happy hour begins to wind down around 8 p.m., and I’ve already had enough to eat. The wine list, however, beckons, offering local wines from Piemonte. Not just Barolos, Barberas, Nebbiolos and Dolcettos, but also lesser-known varieties, such as red Roeros and a rosato. But when I see a woman behind the bar pouring Barolo Chinato—an aromatic infusion of Barolo wine and China Calissaja bark, rhubarb root and other herbs—I jump at the opportunity to taste it. I’ve tried Cocchi Barolo Chinato in the U.S., but the bartender steers me toward the Montanaro brand, which I drink accompanied by a chunk of dark chocolate, a common pairing in Italy. Dark red, like a sweet vermouth, its smells and tastes of fruit and spicy herbs, with a dry, bitter finish. It confirms my belief that Barolo Chinato is one of the finest digestivos imaginable, and a better match to sweets than even port.
Just before Eataly closes at 10 p.m. I make my way over to the beer bar, which is still bustling. Many people are ordering a pale, refreshing pilsner called Forst, which is brewed in Italy’s German-speaking northern Sudtirol region, and a golden lager called Birra Menabrea 1846. Younger Italians are beginning to take beer more seriously, and it shows.
Hold the Gin
Given that vermouth is so entwined with Italy’s happy hour scene, a vermouth pilgrimage seems like a must. I travel 20 minutes to the town of Pessione, where I visit the Martini & Rossi distillery, housed in a sprawling whitewashed 18th century villa. A greeter leads me through the gate and the garden, and into a stark white laboratory where a man in a white lab coat pours glasses of extra dry, rosso, bianco and rosé vermouths. Though the rosso (red) is beloved by older generations in Italy, I’m most impressed by the bianco (white)—a sweet vermouth that’s available in the U.S., but little known. The scent of thyme and oregano and notes of cloves and vanilla in the taste are wonderful—I could drink this vermouth on the rocks, with a twist of lemon, all afternoon.
Unlike Americans, Italians generally drink vermouth as an aperitivo, on the rocks, sometimes with a citrus garnish. Vermouth consists of 75 percent wine, and all the wine for Martini & Rossi vermouth—even the rosso—is a basic white, such as Trebbiano. The wine only provides the structure and body. “In order to make a great vermouth, the wine must be neutral,” says Alberto Oricco, an enologist and quality control supervisor at the plant. “It’s important not to use a wine with a big flavor, because the flavor comes from the herbs.” A secret blend of aromatic herbs is what gives vermouth its distinctive flavor. Even employees don’t know the exact recipe for Martini & Rossi’s vermouths.
Since we are sampling vermouth at room temperature, I am much more attentive to the smell and can taste many of the herbs and flavors. As we try the pale yellow extra dry, the scents of iris, lemon peel and raspberry emerge, along with a hint of sweet Marsala wine.
We move on to the rosso, commonly called sweet vermouth in the States. Besides a distinct note of coriander, one of the most important ingredients is cinchona, the root that gives sweet vermouth its bitter taste. I find myself lingering over the rich perfume and the sweet ginger and citrus notes that emerge and balance the savory herbs.
In 1863, when Luigi Rossi created his sweet vermouth, he surely didn’t imagine it would become more of a cocktail ingredient than a sipper, dashed into drink recipes in bars around the world. Yet perhaps the beauty of vermouth is that it’s so versatile, perfect for mixing in cocktails or sipping on its own.
After the tasting, we adjourn to the company bar, and the bartender mixes us Americanos. I learn that the enchanting cocktail hadn’t always been called the Americano. It got that name in the 1920s, during Prohibition in the U.S., when thirsty tourists visited Italy and fell for the drink. Before then, the same drink had been known by Italians as a Milano-Torino, in honor of the cities where the drink’s ingredients were made: Campari in Milan and vermouth in Torino. After tasting the best of both cities, it seems the ideal cocktail to crown my trip.