Italy is probably more often associated with wine, but there is also a long history of liqueurs (often bitter to help with digestion). As a result, there are fantastic combinations of bitters, sparkling wines, seasonal fruits, fresh herbs, to create mixers and garnishes for classic cocktails. While young Italians certainly go out for a night on the town, cocktails also appear at aperitivo time. Aperitivo is a cherished Italian tradition that takes place before dinner. It typically involves enjoying a pre-dinner drink accompanied by a selection of small snacks or appetizers. Aperitivo drinks can range from classic cocktails like the Spritz, Negroni, and Americano to wine, prosecco, and vermouth-based concoctions.
While the term “best” is always subjective, there are some Italian cocktails that stand out for their popularity. I highly recommend sitting in a piazza (town square) and spending a hour watching the Italian world go by and eavesdropping on the chatter of neighboring tables while you sip a spritz.
Keep in mind that Italy’s diverse regions have their own unique cocktail specialties. For example, in the northeastern regions like Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the Spritz is a popular choice, while in Sicily, citrus-based cocktails and liqueurs take center stage. Exploring regional specialties allows for a taste of the distinct flavors and traditions of each area.
Here are the best Italian cocktails:
- Spritz: If you are seeing bright orange-red cocktails everywhere you turn in Italy, that is a spritz. There are two typical variations: the Aperol Spritz is made with Aperol (an Italian bitter liqueur), white wine, and a “spritz” of soda water. Sometimes prosecco (sparkling wine) is substituted for a simpler preparation. The second version is a Campari Spritz. Campari is slightly more herb-y and bitter so stick with Aperol if you prefer sweeter drinks. It is typically garnished with an orange slice and/or a green olive and served over ice. In Venice, you can try a third version made with the herbal Select liquor. It’s a perfect choice for aperitivo time.
- Negroni: The Negroni is a classic cocktail that originated in Florence. It has a bittersweet and complex flavor. It consists of equal parts gin, Campari (an herbal Italian liqueur), and sweet vermouth. It is traditionally garnished with an orange peel and served on the rocks. It’s a favorite among cocktail enthusiasts. This is a STRONG drink, so be aware as you sip away.
(See? I have no in focus photos of a negroni, because, well…)
- Americano: An Americano cocktail typically consists of three main ingredients: Campari (a bitter Italian liqueur), sweet vermouth, and soda water. It is believed to have been created in the 1860s at Gaspare Campari’s bar in Milan. I would consider this a kind of negroni-lite. The drink was originally known as the “Milano-Torino” due to its ingredients’ origins. Campari was produced in Milan, while sweet vermouth, another essential ingredient in the cocktail, was typically from Turin. Over time, the cocktail likely became associated with American tourists, and the name “Americano” stuck.
- Hugo: The Hugo is a refreshing and light cocktail, perfect for hot summer days. It is my person go-to cocktail on those long warm evenings of July and August. It is made with prosecco, elderflower syrup, soda water, fresh mint leaves, and a squeeze of lime. This cocktail originates from the South Tyrol region in northern Italy.
- Bellini: The Bellini is a popular cocktail invented in Venice. It combines prosecco with peach puree or peach juice. It’s a delightful and fruity cocktail that is often enjoyed during brunch or as a celebratory drink. If strawberries are in season, be sure to order a Rossini instead, which is a play on the classic Bellini.
Cocktail culture is strong in Italy, and there are lots of modern mixologists (like at Drink Kong in Rome) who can make you a new twist on an old drink – but these 5 remain favorite Italian cocktails for good reason.