Last week, millions of people went gaga over a seemingly innocuous clip of Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, stars of HBO’s Game of Thrones spinoff House of the Dragon: The two were discussing cocktails, and the nexus of the hysteria seemed to lie in the way D’Arcy alluringly purr-expressed a preference for the “negroni … sbagliato … with prosecco in it.” Not long after the clip circulated, bartenders and mixologists all over the country began stocking up on prosecco—and girding their loins. But I wondered how it all played out for the people at the famous Italian bar where the negroni sbagliato was invented. Was this all a dream? Nightmare? Is there anything about this very simple drink that its legion of new fans ought to know? To find out, I called Maurizio Stocchetto, the proprietor of Bar Basso in Milan, before one of his shifts this week. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Heather Schwedel: When did you know it was the negroni sbagliato apocalypse?
Maurizio Stocchetto: I got dozens of emails and WhatsApps that told me about the thing just the very first day. It was very interesting. Now with TikTok, you have an amazing visibility. I don’t know if it’s going to be just a fad. But we’re happy about it of course. The states are pretty far away from here, so I was very, very pleased when I found your email. I said, “Oh, thank God somebody cares about it, to figure out where it started and how.”
Have you had any people coming into the bar and mentioning the clip?
Quite a few, yeah, mentioned about the HBO stuff. But we were amused. We were very—how can you say?—flattered by that. But let’s see what happens. Lots of Americans are coming to Milano because the economy’s changed and the Euro is much cheaper than it used to be.
How long have you worked at Bar Basso?
It’s a family business. I grew up in Bar Basso. I started to work in the bar in the late ’70s because I needed money to buy gasoline for my little motorcycle. I started to work when I had a summer break in high school. I decided to go to California for a while and I moved to Berkeley. And I stayed in Berkeley for about a year. Then I came back to Italy. I spent a year in the army. Then I kept working up until today. So I’ve been working at Bar Basso for about 40 years.
And your father is the one who invented the drink?
Bar Basso was founded in 1930 by a gentleman named Giuseppe Basso. So he called the bar after his name. My father, Mirko Stocchetto, was born in 1931 and he was a Venetian. During the war, very young, he started to work in Venice and he befriended a bartender. Lots of Italian people started to get interested in cocktails, and my father was one of them. So he worked in a hotel for 20 years, becoming a bartender. Then, in 1967, he decided to move to Milano. Through the bar grapevine, he heard about Bar Basso. Mr. Basso at the time was pushing 80. So my father moved to Milano, bringing the experience he had achieved in the international hotel business. And his aim was to have a cocktail bar, just like the lounge of a big hotel, but on a street corner.
It was a very special time because in Italy, it was like the ’50s. It was very formal and people were dressed in a very formal way. But after 1968, when we had counterculture, things started to change. And especially Milano, it already was the city of fashion because there were lots of fashion companies. Lots of ladies started to work and that was very unusual in Italy. And they started to become financially independent. At that point, they were starting to go to bars in groups and order drinks. And in those days, at the bar we were selling mainly manhattans, martinis, bloody marys, negronis. But we needed something lighter. So my father, as a Venetian, he realized that, for instance, sparkling wine was very widely used for cocktails. He would never make spritz, but he started to make a twist of several cocktails using sparkling wine instead of the strong liquors, instead of vodka, instead of tequila, instead of gin. Instead, he developed a set of cocktails and sbagliato was one of them. So it’s interesting that sbagliato was born in the time of social changes, too.
My understanding was that sbagliato means mistake, though?
It’s not a mistake. My father was pretty full of himself, so it was really impossible for a professional bartender to make such mistakes. But he actually said a story where the counters, sometimes the positions of bottles are in certain orders so you can always know where each bottle is. And if you respect the order, you can work without looking at the bottle, just like on the keyboard of the computer or the piano, because you know exactly in what position the bottle is and so on. So some bartender put the wrong bottle in the wrong place. One day, a gentleman walked into the bar and asked for a negroni at the counter. So my father took a glass, filled the glass with ice, he garnished it with a slice of orange, then he grabbed the bottle of Campari, then he grabbed the bottle of vermouth. Then without looking, he grabbed the bottle of gin. But instead, he found himself with a bottle of sparkling wine, a prosecco. So he didn’t feel like changing the bottle. It occurred to him that the combination made some sense. And so he poured the sparkling wine saying, “Oh, today, it’s a sunny day, so let’s get something smoother.” And so he poured the sparkling wine and it was just a simple twist of fate at the end.
Sbagliato in Italian means mistaken. It doesn’t mean clumsy. If my father would’ve called the cocktail maurizio, it would’ve not sold anything, I think. But the name sbagliato, especially in Italian, opens up a world of possibilities: Why mistaken? What’s wrong with that? Or can we have something good from something wrong? So the name was catchy and the drink is very cheeky because if you live in Italy and you like vermouth and Campari, the addition of sparkling wine that you have really keeps the flavor of the base, the basic flavor of Campari and vermouth are still there. And so you can also get a wide group of people that likes it. That happened around the beginning of the ’70s.
My father, he still loved the real negroni so he felt it was sacrilege. From the beginning he was very shy about it. And as a matter of fact, then also that was long before the internet revolution. And so there were very few cocktails bars in Milano. So the cocktails started to become popular as the word of mouth spread. But it took a long time to achieve a wide popularity.
How did the drink stay popular through the years?
Milano had changed a little bit. In certain time of the year, like in spring and in fall time, sometimes you would start seeing stunning girls walking down the street and they were all models because the fashion industry was really becoming very important. So there were lots of young models walking around with the book or composite under their arm. Or then there were young guys who wanted to be professional photographers. And then also they were working for Prada, for Gucci, for many other companies that are not around anymore. We had a scene of industrial designers, that they came from all over the world to work for important architects or industrial designers that we have in Italy. Some of them came to the bar. So we befriended a bunch of industrial designers, especially from the U.K. And we started very strong friendships.
So I started to be surrounded by all this crowd. And meanwhile, Milano was changing from the ’80s and ’90s up until today. Milano found some way, really, I don’t how, to become hip again through fashion, through design, through art and other industries. And Milano is really an important place financially for the south of Europe.
So the sbagliato also slowly started to become more and more popular also among the foreigners that we have here. For instance, we also have, at the bar, we have lots of parties for fashion companies like for Gucci for instance, or for many other companies. There are lots of guests that are pretty famous, pretty influential. Also through such things, then we have lots of daughters of celebrities like Kaia Gerber, the daughter of Cindy Crawford, or Lourdes Leon, which is the daughter of Madonna. So somehow we have lots of them. We have Nick Cave. He came to the bar with other celebrities for a Gucci party we had a couple of years ago. Somehow word of mouth keeps on working.
Is the sbagliato your most popular drink?
Nowadays it is, absolutely, because through the media it became more popular. But we have quite a few cocktails where we have invented and we’re proud of, like the rossini. That is champagne and fresh strawberries. It’s sort of Bellini with strawberries. But we have quite a few cocktails and we still make, other cocktails that we make, they’re all from the ’50s and ’60s. We don’t follow the internet. We don’t try to be hip. We just do what we’ve been doing for years. And yeah, it works.
How many do you sell on the average day?
Well, it’s very hard to figure out. But there are many.
Obviously other bars do their own version of the sbagliato. Have you had them?
We’ve been making it for so long and we have the cocktail, but also the place where the cocktail was made has its own atmosphere. Also we use special glasses to make sbagliatos. The cocktail glasses from the ’60s, they were handmade and we still keep on doing this. So maybe having a sbagliato at Bar Basso is something that you experience only at Bar Basso. A few years ago we decided to make a trademark of the name to protect it because we did not want big companies to make it in a bottle or something like that. So we don’t mind if bars and restaurant serve a sbagliato. We are very flattered. But we just don’t want big companies to take advantage of an idea and try to profit.
I hope I make my way to Milan one day so I can have one.
Oh, absolutely. You will have a free drink, of course.