Drinking Italian in "The Talented Mr. Ripley"
"How far would you go to become someone else?"
I’ve been on an Americano kick lately (the aperitivo, not the caffè). The Italian aperitivo canon is in frequent rotation in my repertoire, but I’ll go through phases where one month I’m ordering nothing but Campari & Soda and that will switch over to Negroni Sbagliatos or Campari Shakeratos. The simple combination of Campari (or your favorite red bitter) with sweet vermouth and topped with cold soda water and an orange twist is incredibly refreshing and hits that low-ABV (bitter)sweet spot for session drinking, especially when you might be sitting outside (as I was the other afternoon at Bar Pisellino).
When we were in Italy in 2015 shooting my second book, Amaro, photographer Ed Anderson and I had a particularly long and tiring drive from Milan to Friuli. I had booked two rooms for us at Orsone, a B&B owned by Joe Bastianich that overlooks a nearby vineyard. When we pulled up, we were greeted by a husky ginger cat who rolled on his back in the stone driveway and then followed us around the property for the remainder of our stay (which I took as a good omen).
I had arranged everything by phone in my broken Italian and there were no email, phone numbers, or credit card information exchanged. It was all very Italian. We just showed up when we said we would it was taken care of. The bill wasn’t spoken about; we’d work everything out when we left. (We departed early in the morning on the second day before breakfast was served, but we awoke to find paper sacks outside our doors filled with bottled water, fresh-squeezed juice, a simple sandwich of prosciutto cotto with cucumbers and cheese, an orange and a pear, and a slice of torta di melle.)
It was late afternoon and we were tired but needed to stretch our legs, so we sat at a table on the terrazza and ordered two Americanos to take the edge off. The server delivered our drinks along with wooden bowls of potato chips, mixed nuts, and popcorn and we just stared out at the countryside around us enjoying a moment of silence and serenity before we had to clean ourselves up and drive into town for the next photoshoot. (Ed’s photo at the top of this dispatch captures that moment and remains one of my favorites from Amaro).
This is the time of year when friends, colleagues, and people who I don’t know but wish I had their budget and lifestyle start photo-bombing my Instagram feed with sun-baked, seaside photos of their summer adventures in Italy. There’s a bit of aspirational jealousy, sure, though I realize how fortunate I am to have visited Italy semi-regularly in the name of work and research over the years, and have been on the receiving end of generous hospitality from my hosts on many occasions.
But as a freelance writer I don’t really ever take a vacation as 90% of any travel is work-related in some way. With no slight to his deserved and hard-earned success, watching Eric Wareheim traveling through Italy is a very different experience than BTP traveling through Italy. But lately I’ve seen so many who aren’t celebrities travel through Italy like they are, with Kodachrome snapshots of sunning themselves on sailboats parked off the beach of the turquoise-colored Adriatic sea, staying in cliffside palazzos with winding staircases leading to to the beach, countless red-and-orange-hued alfresco aperitivo drinks consumed while dressed in stylish attire.
Okay, sure, maybe there is a hint of jealousy on my end, and I do aspire to one day have a proper Italian vacation in the manner of living captured in the late Anthony Minghella’s film 1999 film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Buzzing Vespas, thick waffle robes to cover up after a swim, mixing up Martinis and drinking Campari on the rocks with abandon. La dolce vita without all the (spoiler alert) murders and sociopathic behavior.
I recently rewatched The Talented Mr. Ripley, which came out on Christmas Day in 1999, with an eye toward what the characters are drinking in Italy throughout the film, and while the screenplay mentions Campari a few times, it’s gin-soaked Martinis that land a supporting role.
"I Always Thought it Would Be Better to Be a Fake Somebody Than a Real Nobody."
I’m not going to get into too many specific plot details in case you have never seen The Talented Mr. Ripley (and I encourage you to do so if you haven’t) and keep it relatively spoiler-free. I’ve never read Highsmith’s Ripley series or watched the other film adaptions (there’s also a streaming adaption in the works), but Minghella’s film stands on its own. It’s incredibly stylish with beautiful cinematography, a moody score, shot on location in Italy, and packed with cast of young and up-and-coming stars including Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blacnhett, and an unforgettable Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP). Not to mention the late great Philip Baker Hall.
Set in 1959 over the summer and just past Christmas, the film starts in New York with Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), who, after borrowing a friend’s Princeton blazer, is mistaken for a former classmate of Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), the son of a New York shipping magnate. Dickie has embraced a privileged, playboy expat lifestyle living off his trust fund allowance in Italy with no plans to return home to run the family business. Tom is hired by Dickie’s father for $1,000 (approximately $10,000 in 2023) to convince Dickie to return home. Ripley is from a different social class than the socialites he soon finds himself immersed with and combats his awkwardness and imposter syndrome with a long and ultimately deadly game of lies, forgeries, impersonation, and obsession.
All of this plays out in stunning seaside and cityscape vistas across Naples, Rome, San Remo, and Venice, set during Italy’s “il boom,” when a new era of post-WWII economic prosperity led to the stylish leisure of Italy’s la dolce vita. Locations on the Italian islands of Ischia and Procida stood in for the fictional coastal town of Mongibello in the Bay of Naples where much of the action takes place.
Once in Italy, Ripley finds Dickie lounging beachside with his girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow) and passes himself off as a former classmate which begins his deception. There are two tall glasses on the table between Dickie and Marge with melting ice and a half-drunk reddish-colored drink with orange wedges. The orange tint makes me think they’re drinking Campari and orange juice, which makes sense on a hot day in the sun.
They then gather in the lush and sunny garden of Marge’s villa where Dickie boasts about his prowess with the espresso machine. Dickie interrupts Ripley, asking, “Can you mix a Martini?” “Sure,” he replies but his awkwardness belies that he’s out of his element. Marge notices and heads to the bar, offering “I mix a fabulous Martini.” Dickie jokes back, “Everybody should have one talent.”
Ripley soon admits why he’s in Italy and conspires with Dickie to dupe his father and continue to live off his allowance. Dickie wants to use the money promised to Ripley to buy a sports box but Marge suggests an ice box would be more practical (if you’re a subscriber you already know my thoughts on Italy’s relationship with ice). We later see the ice box set up in the living room with trays of ice being cracked and dropped into glasses. At one point Dickie and Ripley return home late at night and Dickie pulls out two ice cold bottles of Italian beer. He leaves the refrigerator door and open and sighs, “I could f**k this icebox, I love it so much.”
As they continue to bond, the trio hits the sea in Dickie’s sailboat, “Bird” (named after Charlie Parker) where Marge’s Martini’s are served in red-striped tumblers (at first I thought those red stripes were Campari in the glass but that’s not the case).
When a stack of jazz records “accidentally” slide out of Ripley’s leather satchel, budding jazz musician Dickie is elated and soon they’re on the train to San Remo where Dickie hops up on the stage at a hot and smoky, neon-lit jazz club to join his friend Fausto in a rousing rendition of “Tu Vuo Fà L'Americano.” Dickie invites Ripley to the stage to join them. While no Americanos are seen or consumed in the film, this little set-piece stands out and why I likely assumed I would I was certainly going to see an Americano or two pop up.
“Oh! Everybody Knows Freddie Miles”
Ripley’s “friendship” with Dickie is put to the test on a trip to Rome when Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a grand entrance as Freddie Miles at the 35-minute mark. This wasn’t Hoffman’s first picture but one of his earlier ones, and as he demonstrated throughout his brief but luminous career he excelled at making the most of seemingly minor characters. While the guys are sharing a bottle of San Marco Frascati Superiore at a cafe in Piazza Navona, a honking car horn announces the arrival of Freddie Miles (PSH), who careens in driving his open-top, cherry-red 1955 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider, sending pigeons scattering as he illegally parks in front of the Fountain of the Four Rivers.
He climbs out of the car in a khaki suit, blue oxford and striped knit tie with a loud “Come stai?” before issuing a crude remark about Italian women then greets Dickie with a continental kiss. Dickie: “You look gorgeous.” Freddie. “As always.” He then empties a water glass, fills it with wine then knocks it back in one slug. They head off leaving Ripley to pick up the check.
From the screenplay: “He’s a heavy-set American with a reddish crewcut. Ripley finds him disgusting to look at. Dickie is delighted.” Compared to the suntanned and fit figures on display in Dickie and Marge’s circle, Freddie, brought to mesmerizing life by Hoffman, is pale and plump and carries himself in a foppish manner, complete with a limp wrist and a lazy cadence. He reeks of old-money privilege and smugness, and immediately suspects Ripley is up to no good.
The new quartet take the “Bird” out to sea and Dickie and Freddie continue to ostracize Ripley as they laugh and gossip. They’re drinking Marge’s Martinis out of red-hued glasses; Freddie stirs his with his finger and plunks out an olive and pops it his mouth. The two take a dip and as they’re pretending to drown each other in the deep water, Marge says to Ripley, “Tell me, why is it that when men play, they always play at killing each other?”
I’ll leave the twists and turns and fates of these characters for you to discover on your own. But as for the rest of the drinks, there’s Champagne to be consumed at luxury hotels and opera houses and bottles of wine to be emptied. A bottle of J&B Whiskey (a favorite bottle prop seen in many films) pops up and we even get a decent look at Tom Ripley’s home bar where he shakes up (I know, I know) Martinis. He uses Gordon’s Gin and Martini Vermouth (though the bottle of vermouth has a modern plastic flow-constrictor cap that wasn’t in use in 1959. And one thing of note, for all the drinks that go hand in hand with eating like an Italian, there’s little to no actual food seen or consumed, beyond the occasional cocktail olive.
If you haven’t seen The Talented Mr. Ripley, I hope you’ll be inspired to check it out (maybe over a Martini or two). And if you have, what did you think?
The Summer of BTP
This summer I’ll be in the final stages of writing my new book on Italian drinking culture and channeling the spirit of drinking like a Talented Mr. Ripley character with this wonderful photo of Phil as Freddie out at sea serving as an inspiration. We miss you, Phil. And if you squint a bit you just might mistake him for the husky ginger cat writing this very dispatch.
And for you, readers, here are two takes on the two drinks I’ve been consuming the most lately. I hope you enjoy them.
Recipe: Americano 2.0
Exclusive Preview From Drinking Italian
The classic Americano remains an iconic Italian option when you're looking for a bittersweet, low-alcohol highball, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement, or at least a more contemporary cover version. At New York's Caffe Dante they stick with the classic combination of red bitters and sweet vermouth, using the aromatic and botanical-forward Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale Bitter and a full-bodied rosso vermouth from Mancino, along with a few drops of saline and orange citrate for a pop of citrus. But what really sets it apart is that instead of bubbly water the drink calls for Baladin Ginger Soda. But this soft drink made in Piozzo by Italian craft brewer Teo Musso contains no ginger whatsoever. It packs the necessary carbonation but the red-hued blend, made with bitter orange and vanilla, comes on like a combination of orange and cream soda. After trying this you may never look at your usual Americano in the same way ever again.
Makes 1 Drink
1 ounce Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale Bitter
1 ounce Italian sweet vermouth (preferably Mancino Vermouth Rosso Amaranto)
1 dash saline solution (1:1, Maldon salt:water)
6 drops Bittermens Orange Cream Citrate
Baladin Ginger soda (chilled)
Garnish: orange slice or wedge
Add the bitters, sweet vermouth, saline solution, and orange citrate to a Collins glass filled with ice. Top with ginger soda. Give it a quick stir and garnish with an orange slice or wedge.
With Martinis I’m usually a 50/50 guy, with equal parts gin and bianco vermouth with orange bitters and a lemon twist. Lately, though, I’ve been calling for my Martini as 2:1 Fords Gin and Bianco vermouth finished with a grapefruit twist. I like it super cold (with a frozen glass if possible) and I’m fond of the grapefruit oil and aromatics that land in a different way than a traditional lemon peel.
Makes 1 Drink
2 ounces Fords Gin
1 ounce Bianco Vermouth (preferably Bordiga Vermouth Bianco)
1 dash saline solution (1:1, Maldon salt:water)
Garnish: grapefruit twist
Add the gin and vermouth to a mixing glass filled with ice and stir until well chilled. Strain into a chilled Nick and Nora or coupe glass. Garnish with a grapefruit peel.
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