Food & Drink : Afternoon delight

From bracing to delicate, apéritifs provide a relaxing repast

Picture this: You’re sitting at a sidewalk café on the Piazza Navona in Rome, admiring the bearded men of Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain and watching the world roll by on vintage Vespas. It’s 4 o’clock and time for a refreshing drink, so what do you order? A Campari-and-soda, of course, with a twist of lime. Campari’s garnet color plays perfectly against the golden stone of the 17th-century churches and palaces flanking the former, early-Roman stadium, and its bracingly bitter herbal-and-sour-cherry flavor is just the prescription for the tourist tired from monument marching and pigeon-dodging.

When in San Antonio, do as the Romans do: Campari-and-soda is a popular Italian apéritif that has an herbal, slightly bitter flavor, and is thought to stimulate the appetite (although some think it stimulates an afternoon nap).

Best of all, Campari’s relatively low alcohol content of 24 percent means you can have two — in fact, the apéritif was allowed during Prohibition due to its designation as a medicinal product. I prefer to take my medicine on the rocks with a splash of soda, but many favor the classic Americano — composed of equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth with soda — for its bitter-sweet contrast. Pour Campari into a tall glass filled with ice and add orange juice (in a 1:2 ratio), and you’ll have a Garibaldi — a rather healthful concoction, considering all that vitamin C. If you’d rather be frankly bad, the Negroni (1 part each of Campari, Cinzano Rosso and gin), will do the trick: just pour over ice, add a slice of orange, and move the action to the Via Veneto.

Pastis, on the other hand, puts me in mind of Provence. Say, a shady square in Aix, preferably one with a place for petanque. The metallic clank of the steel balls, cast by men in battered fedoras, coincides perfectly with the clink of cubes in your glass, and the heady aroma of anise seems to blend seamlessly with the hazy summer air.

Distillers created Pastis some time after 1915, in response to the banning of absinthe, which was thought to have mind-altering properties (it has recently resurfaced, offending wormwood and all). Generic pastis is made with aniseed and licorice, but popular brand Pernod is actually made with star anise and herbs. The green-gold drink is traditionally served with a small pitcher of water, turning the drink milky-white as it mellows the insistent licorice flavor. The Hemingway, 1 part pastis to 5 parts Champagne, changes the complexion of things and suggests the more cosmopolitan setting of a sidewalk café in Paris.

Lovely Lillet, on the other hand — and lovely is le mot juste — may be more of a Deauville creature, its flavor suggesting ocean breezes and the first flowers of spring. White Lillet’s aromas of candied orange peel and delicate blossoms betray its origins in a complex blend of white wines (85 percent) and fruit liqueurs — mostly of oranges from around the world — sharpened with quinine bark.

Served simply — chilled, with a generous piece of orange peel and a single ice cube to keep the peel company — Lillet blonde is light (17 percent alcohol), lilting and, again, lovely. Lime sharpens the taste but doesn’t necessarily improve it, while a splash of soda does make for a more delicate variation (the maker also recommends a Bordeaux wine glass, and he’s right). You may also like to try the red Lillet, which features raspberry and warm spice notes.

As for mixing, the Lillet Olé pairs equal parts Lillet, blue Curaçao, and silver tequila, but I wouldn’t bother. Take it straight and think April walks on a deserted beach at dawn. Or dusk, if you’re not one to drink in the morning.