Travel /
Lombardy /

Drinking Milan: the Historic Bar Basso

“If the intellectuals of Vienna and Trieste sat and sipped coffee, in Milan they had a cocktail”.

Milan is the capital of the aperitif, a city tradition that for more than fifty years has been consumed at the tables of the same bar. At Bar Basso, Milan has never changed.

Drinking Milan was the slogan from an advertisement that populated the city’s streets in 1985. The campaign was for Ramazzotti liqueur but it infiltrated the common vernacular because, in just a few words, it summarized a particular moment in history. Terrorism was over, in politics new faces like Berlusconi emerged, new television networks sprung up, and the city was teeming with yuppies thirsty for life, cocktails, and cocaine. It was the Milan of rampant capitalism and consumerism, where flaunting money and power in the right places was definitely all the rage. Looking back today, it was simply Milan and that’s that.

Milan, capital of finance, fashion, and design, is also that of the aperitif. It did not invent vermouth or the Negroni, but it made happy hour a city ritual. Milan is always in a hurry, unsightly from the anxiety of constant busyness and in this, forty years later, it has not changed. In the rest of Italy people meet for a coffee, in Milan for a drink. There’s no breakfast, and the mid-day meal is a sandwich on the run or a quick business lunch. After working late it’s finally time for a cocktail. Care for a spritz? Before the ubiquitous drink spread (very recently) halfway around the world, in Milan one only drank Campari – still produced just outside the city, near steel mills and heavy industries that no longer exist.

Milan is like a phoenix, a city reborn from its own ashes; it cannibalizes itself to forge ahead, destroying to then rebuild with little nostalgia. It has always done so and that is why symbols of the Milanese spirit – the Duomo’s Madonnina aside – are rare. Milan is full of trendy bars, with a new one opening weekly, from avant-garde cocktail bars, new formats, and gin joints, to clubs for whiskey lovers. While the “Drinking Milan” follows new openings to review, there is a place that has seen the city change and grow while it remained an institution: Bar Basso.

The Ritual of the Aperitif

Founded in 1947 on via Plinio, Bar Basso is one of the rare places where one can still breathe the charm of the great international bars and of old Milan. Not ancient, elegant, or aristocratic, but, as it states on the napkins, rather “modern”, reflective of a changing post-war city. 

It all began in 1967, when Mirko Stocchetto took over the bar from Mr. Basso. These are the years just before the 1968 movements, with a world in turmoil and in search of social changes, the establishment of a new middle class along with a new way of thinking. There’s rock and roll dancing and a youth culture that doesn’t want stuffy bars nor the kind where fathers would gather to play cards. Stocchetto understood this particular moment and introduced a new tradition to the city. Very young, he had worked in Cortina, Munich, Harry’s Bar in Venice, he had served Hemingway and the Agnelli family, and sampled the American way of drinking. He reimagined Bar Basso as a place of worship for sophisticated drinkers, he introduced the ritual of the aperitif, and he made cocktails popular by relocating them from the lounges of luxury hotels.

This historic neighborhood bar thus became the Mecca of the cocktail shaker, of assorted recipes like the Manhattan, White Lady, Bloody Mary and Margarita, but above all, the place where recipes were invented. Bar Basso boasts a list of 500 drinks, made strictly by eye; it is where both the Rossini (strawberries and prosecco) and the timeless Negroni Sbagliato®, which Mirko claims to have created by mistake in 1972, were born. This is the legend, but what is certain is that behind the bar a piece of mixology history was made, establishing Milan in the process.

And if the intellectuals of Vienna and Trieste sat and sipped coffee, in Milan they had a cocktail.

People of the Night

In a career spanning over fifty years, Stocchetto has seen people from all walks of life pass through, from the arts, politics, to the working man and neighboring university body. A new generation of designers and architects began frequenting the bar and a magical creative community emerged. To this day, patrons drink from limited edition glasses and enjoy their Negroni Sbagliato® in the legendary oversized goblet, a hallmark of the Bar. At Mirko’s side is son Maurizio, the real soul of the place. Besides the exhibitions, the Salone del Mobile parties, and art installations, people still come every day, it is always full; not with curious people and tourists but with regulars who order “the usual”.

Bar Basso’s history is often talked about, but here they don’t miss the good old days. While many redesigned their places chasing trends, here, everything stayed the same. They care about identity, because they have one, from chairs, tables, doilies to the counter, even the bottles are kept in the same position since the 1970s. Everything is unchanged, like the canapés and snacks, the white shirts and bow ties of the bartenders, and the old school cocktails that most would consider out of fashion. But it’s the people who make a place and for fifty years the most fashionable have been coming to Bar Basso, adults and young folks, new designers, children of old patrons, neighbors, artists, rappers, journalists and politicians. The photos taken over the years are proof that styles change but Bar Basso remains.

Courtesy of Bar Basso