Both a style of drink and an experience itself, in Italy aperitivo represents the symbolic golden hour, when one transitions into evening by meeting up with friends over lower-ABV drinks, sparking an appetite for dinner and the end-of-day wind-down. “I absolutely love that side of aperitivo culture and lifestyle, where [drinks are enjoyed] at a more leisurely pace, alongside little snacks and salty chips and olives,” says Julia Momosé, the creative director and partner of a high-end Japanese-inspired cocktail bar in Chicago.
Though the Spritz and Negroni have dominated the world’s translation of aperitivo hour, many drinkers in Italy—and those in the know stateside—find themselves reaching for a Campari & Soda. The combination of one part Campari and three parts soda water is a democratized drink throughout Italy, available in many forms and venues and crossing over from older Italians to younger cocktail aficionados, who are drawn equally to the tradition and convenience of its classic serve. The easy build makes it readily available in trattorias, cafés and bars across Italy, from high-end establishments to small bottegas. If it’s not composed à la minute, the drink is often presented in a small glass with ice alongside a single-serve bottle of club soda. Says Momosé, “I love that it isn’t limited to the fancy cocktail bars. Pretty much everyone has bubbly water of some sort and a bottle of Campari.”
The iconic drink was born at Camparino in Galleria, a bar opened in 1915 by Davide Campari, son of the Campari formula’s creator. One key to the cocktail’s popularity was a custom hydraulics-based carbonation system installed in the basement, which the white-jacketed bartenders used to deliver highly carbonated seltzer into guests’ glasses upstairs. The “Campari Seltz” (as it’s known there) served today at Camparino starts with a frozen glass and a pour of chilled Campari, into which the signature high-energy seltzer is shot; the combination makes for an almost impossibly bubbly, vibrant red cocktail with a thick, aromatic layer of foam.
In addition to creating this iconic serve, Davide Campari was pivotal in collaborating with influential artists of the era to develop the innovative advertising campaigns that helped turn Campari into a brand that represents the lifestyle, arts and culture of Italy around the world. One 1926 Art Deco–style poster by Italian designer Marcello Nizzoli featured a bottle of Campari against a background of black and grays, with a cerulean seltzer bottle spraying a stream of water into an elegant glass of red liquid. The stylish simplicity of the “Campari L’Aperitivo” is just one of many examples of the dynamic outreach throughout the 20th century that helped make certain that a bottle of Campari, and the Campari & Soda, became staples behind the bar throughout Italy.
Momosé fondly remembers the many calls for the drink she made on her last trip to Italy. Most were unfussy and delicious—served in a short glass with ice and typically garnished with a half-moon orange slice. And her Camparino experience inspires reverie. “The last time there, it was right around aperitivo hour and there were eight or 10 glasses lined up on the bar—some of them still had little bits of crushed ice clinging to the inside of the glass from the chilling. And in a perfect swooping motion, the bartender free-poured Campari all the way down the line, showing no hesitation, before coming back through with that powerful blast of ice-cold soda water. It was absolute perfection, and so lively.”
Similarly, Michael Capoferri, the owner and operator of a neighborhood bar in Echo Park, Los Angeles, still can’t shake the Campari & Soda he was served in an unassuming four-seat bar in Sesto San Giovanni, Milan. Though less theatrical, the serve was similar: no ice, frozen glass, cold Campari. He says, “It was one of those little bottega-style bars with three old men reading the paper at 1 o’clock in the afternoon that turned into a magical, very Italian, experience.”
In a series of cheeky Campari ads aimed at the American market in the 1970s, one featured a bottle of Campari and a Campari & Soda with the bold, all-caps headline: “9 Out of Every 10,000 Americans Prefer Campari & Soda.” The copy ends with, “Campari comes from Italy where we have a saying: Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor is the love of Campari & Soda.” The historic brand may have been playing a patient long game, and as Americans have come to embrace all things bitter and bubbly.