I was window shopping one evening through the high fashion district of Florence. I paused at the Monte Blanc pen shop to gaze at a photo of Hugh Jackman in the window (sigh), entered a lovely blanket shop to check the price on what I thought was a gorgeous shawl. I learned first that it was a cashmere picnic blanket (who knew they made such things?!) and that this delightful 4 by 4 foot blanket cost 4830 euro (over $6500 at today’s exchange rate). I caressed it for a moment and handed it back to the salesman telling him I would continue looking. I passed the Tiffany jewelry store, a high end spa, and continued down the Via Tornabuoni.
I walked toward what was to become one of my favorite hangouts in Florence. As I approached the café on that first evening, Frank Sinatra crooned to me from the welcoming entrance. Laughing couples and small groups of friends sipped pretty cocktails in shades of orange over ice, and enjoyed colorful appetizers served in stacked glasses, on the covered patio on the street outside.
I entered and looked around. The beautiful wooden bar caught my attention followed by the delightful selection of tapenades lining the counter with breads and chips in column shaped glass bowls behind them. I watched the bartender free pour from four bottles at once into a row of ice filled glasses, the colors of the liquor splashing together, red, orange, pale yellow, clear. He was making beautiful art in a glass. I wanted to taste it. I asked what the drink was called. “A Negroni,” the waiter responded. I decided to stay.
The story goes that the Negroni cocktail was invented on the spot where the Caffè Giacosa now stands. Prior to its renovation by famed Florentine fashion designer Roberto Cavalli, this location used to house the Casoni Bar. Sometime between 1919 and 1920 (according to the café’s menu), a bartender named Fosco Scarselli created the Negroni, which is “a particular kind of Americano cocktail, adding some gin”, for the Conte Cammillo Negroni. The Conte liked the drink and it was named after him. The rest is history as the Negroni is one of the most famous drinks in Florence. Many variations of the Negroni have emerged over the years including one called the Negrunge which is a specialty of the current bar (ingredients lists below).
I moved from the bar to the table service section, where a long curving leather sofa is fronted by small round tables. There is also a self-service section with tall standing tables. Generally speaking, I tend to move pretty quickly and part of this trip has been about slowing down and taking time, so standing at a table to have a drink, a common tradition for both espresso and aperitivo in Florence, doesn’t really work for me. Plus, I’m on my own, so table service allows for interaction with wait staff.
I looked at the menu, sought out the Negroni, and saw there were a number of them, all containing gin, bitter Campari, and vermouth. Remembering my friends’ glee at the faces I make while drinking bitter (beer) or strong alcohol (any straight alcohol except wine) back home, I thought I might need to ease into this more slowly. So, I sought out their spritzes instead. On this first night, I chose a Spritz royale which is made of aperol, raspberry vodka, prosecco, and soda water. It came in a wine glass and was a lovely rose color. It was tasty and refreshing.
Not long after I received my drink, a smiling woman brought me a lovely plate of appetizers. I had no idea that table service meant I got my own appetizers in addition to the lovely spread available to everyone. It contained two savory pastries, olives, carrots, and spicy corn nuts. I should admit here that I am NOT a fan of olives. Let me clarify I WAS not a fan of olives. The olives here are green, large, buttery and slightly salty. I LOVE them!!! Occasionally, I now get a craving for them and have to go out in search of olives. I must figure out how to bring some home.
I nursed my drink and enjoyed my appetizers, complementing them with samples of the olive tapenades from the bar. For Florentines, the idea of aperitivo is that an early drink and appetizers (from 6:30-8:30 pm) prime the stomach for dinner later, around 10. For me, it normally IS dinner. That first night, I ended my evening with a cappuccino served with a small biscotti.
On my second visit, I tried an old style Negroni. It was made with gin, bitter Campari, red vermouth and soda water. This time the savory pastries were replaced with potato chips in the appetizers. And I fell further in love with the olives. The drink was, for me, incredibly strong. I nursed it as the ice melted and then asked for an ice refill. While it was strong for me, it was also smooth and flavorful. I don’t think I made much of a “bitter drink face”.
On my third visit, I tried the Negrunge, the special Negroni served in this café. It was made of gin, bitter Campari, mandarin liqueur, white vermouth, and angostura bitters. For me, the fruitiness of the mandarin liqueur made this drink much smoother and easier to drink. I still nursed it as I enjoyed my appetizers, though, and again, the OLIVES!!!!!
The café offers not only aperitivo, but also breakfast and lunch. Their pastry chef makes all their sweet and savory pastries. Their sandwiches and desserts look delicious. I haven’t tried those yet, but will update if I do.
The Caffé Giacosa is located near the arch at the Piazza della Repubblica on Via Tornabuoni in Florence, Italy. To learn more, check out their website: http://caffegiacosa.it/index.php?file=history
One final note. I am so enamored of their olives that I asked where they came from. I’m hoping to be able to bring some home to the states. My waiter told me they receive them in bulk from a local supplier. I explained that I wanted some to take home with me and asked if they would tell me the name of the supplier. Misunderstanding me, the chef brought me a container of olives in a brown paper bag to take home with me, indicating there was no charge for them. I LOVE Florence and Caffè Giacosa!