Trattoria Contadina gets schooled in edgy Negronis on sfchronicle.com

San Franscisco Chronicle

By Esther Mobley

You may ask: Who isn’t specializing in Negronis these days? The bitter and sweet aperitif, traditionally an equal-parts combination of Campari, vermouth and gin, is having a moment among the craft-cocktail set. Exhibit A: Negroni Week, a 3-year-old celebration launched by Imbibe magazine, which this year featured the likes of Negroni ice cream from Humphry Slocombe and Negroni gelee with foie gras panna cotta from Dirty Habit.

But Contadina is not the bandwagon-jumping type, and Kevin Correnti, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Gina, has been Negroni-obsessed for years. “I was a poor college student, and I didn’t want other people drinking my drinks, so I started putting Campari in everything,” he recalls. “No one else would touch it.”

Although there’s only one Negroni on the menu (Campari, Cocchi vermouth, Beefeater; $10), Correnti has a seemingly endless roster of variants up his sleeve. Which makes him one of the best-kept cocktail secrets in San Francisco.

Utter the word “Negroni” and Correnti is likely to appear at your table, offering impassioned suggestions for versions of his favorite cocktail. He might first fix one with Cappelletti Americano (a Campari substitute), Carpano Antica and Beefeater, bursting with orange blossom, its bitterness resounding on the finish. Next, the Lady Hawk, which tops that Cappelletti concoction with Prosecco: Surprisingly, the sparkling wine didn’t add any discernible fizziness, but rounded the overall texture and added a distinct stone fruit flavor.

“My perfect Negroni right now,” Correnti says, “would be Antica, Big Gin from Seattle, and a mix of Cappelletti and Cynar,” the latter an artichoke-derived amaro. Strong in both alcohol and flavor, it’s not for everybody. But if you’re an amaro fan — or if you’re open to conversion — you may love it. And you may also love Correnti’s version that includes St. George’s Botanivore gin, Antica and the rhubarb liqueur Zucca, which has delicate floral aromas and tastes wonderfully earthy. (“Flowers just starting to decompose” was the tasting note of one of my companions.)

If you give Correnti carte blanche, you’ll experience various fruit bitters, an extensive cast of vermouths and rinses of cherry heering. The stealth hit of a recent visit was a Boulevardier — which swaps gin for whiskey — garnished with olives. Might sound gross, but it isn’t. The drink’s Rittenhouse Rye gives it a familiar whiskey-cocktail profile of sweet caramel and leather that gently cloaks the bitter and fruity elements. “It’s one of those perfect five-sense cocktails,” Correnti says. “A Boulevardier is already sweet, but here you get the salt from the olives, the bitter, the spice.”

Flavor harmony, experimentation, secret menus — if Correnti isn’t careful, someone might mistake him for a mixologist. But that’s not what he and Contadina are about. The priority, Gina says, is maintaining the same dishes and service and staff that have won the restaurant loyalty for 30 years. The rest is extra.

Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine, beer and spirits writer. E-mail: emobley@sfchronicle.com

Heering Negroni

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