Should you find yourself with a friend in town and a little time to kill on a quiet Sunday evening, wander down to Glenwood South and look for the arc of twinkle lights illuminating the black awning at C. Grace.
Walk down the short flight of stairs from the street and, once inside, let your eyes adjust to a darkness so thick it seems to settle in your hand. Of the Triangle’s many excellent cocktail bars, C. Grace is the one that seems most likely to require a secret knock and a password to gain entry.
Gold-fringed, red velvet curtains set off a stage, where five nights a week musicians hold forth on the black baby grand piano or horns of their choosing. The sleek settees and armchairs in the back of the bar, which seems to stretch forever beneath the street, make you wish you’d worn your fishnet stockings just because your legs would look so classy curled up on the sofa in them.
On Sunday nights, the stage is quiet, and if you’re lucky, the crowd at the curved bar near the door is thin. All the better for perusing C. Grace’s well-curated drinks list. As you might have guessed, this is no place to look for an Appletini. C. Grace is, however, an excellent place to order a Negroni. And now is an excellent time.
Apparently, we are living in the “true heyday” of this Italian cocktail staple, if the foreword to the recently published “The Negroni: Drinking to La Dolce Vita, With Recipes & Lore” by Gary Regan, is to be believed.
The classic recipe for the Negroni is one part gin, one part Campari, one part sweet vermouth. The drink endears itself immediately to anyone who loves the Valentine-red liqueur Campari, which includes me. I tasted my first Campari-and-soda in a small bottle shop in Rome after a week in Italy of drinking little but red wine and espresso had left my taste buds travel-weary. The bittersweet strike of the Campari was a shot of the gods’ own palate cleanser.
Like many a woman who has fallen in love in the Eternal City, I thought my suitor and I shared a special bond. As it turns out, Campari has many lovers. Regan writes that more than 3 million cases of Campari are sold annually in more than 200 countries.
Negroni drinkers are legion these days, too, and not just because they love Campari. The drink’s popularity may be due in part to its swashbuckling backstory, which Regan lays out in his book. It seems not one, but two late 19th to early 20th century historical figures named Count Negroni claim to be the inventor of this drink. More likely is that the drink’s classic formula lends itself so readily to interpretation that it simultaneously feeds our prevailing hunger for the classics and our desire to customize every aspect of modern life. If the Negroni were a song, it would be “Wagon Wheel” – a sturdy, endearing bit of art that compels everyone from great masters to tinkering fools to make it their own.
Regan’s book includes 63 variations, collected from around the world. Some switch the gin out for bourbon or vodka. Others replace sweet vermouth with other aromatics or even vegetable-infused liqueurs. (The Pepper Negroni may be the most daring, calling for an ounce of yellow Chartreuse infused with serranos in place of vermouth.)
C. Grace’s formula is reliably traditional, with just a hint of bitters added as deviation from the strictly classic recipe. My friend and I found Vince, the bartender who attended us on a quiet Sunday evening, more than willing to tinker with the standard to suit our tastes. It turned out that merely contemplating the myriad possibilities of the Negroni satisfied our classic cocktail longings well into the night.
Amber Nimocks is a former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at amberwrites.com.
The Boulevardier is among the many variations on the Negroni included in Gary Regan’s “The Negroni: Drinking to La Dolce Vita, With Recipes & Lore.” It’s a good one for those who happen to keep bourbon on hand more regularly than gin. Stir 1 ounce bourbon, 1 ounce sweet vermouth and 1 ounce Campari together with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange slice, lemon twist or cherry.
C. Grace’s Negroni
From Matthew Bettinger of C. Grace in Raleigh.
1 ounce Gordon’s London Dry Gin
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce Cocchi Di Torino Vermouth
1 wide orange peel
Combine gin, Campari and vermouth in a mixing glass with ice. Stir. Strain into a rocks glass. Express oils from orange peel into glass. Add peel. Serve.
Yield: 1 cocktail.