Some cocktails are born from intricate planning and laborious tinkering, the brainchildren of mad scientist mixologists. Other libations, like the Negroni Sbagliato, happen by happy accident.
The Sbagliato is the slightly askew cousin of the Negroni proper, an herbaceous Italian standard that’s equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, topped with an orange peel. As the owner of Bar Basso in Milan, Mirko Stocchetto used to whip up the aromatic aperitivo — a pre-meal, appetite-stimulating drink, per Italian custom — dozens of times a day for his thirsty pals in the late 1960s, mindlessly mixing the classic while listening to working-class regulars regale each other with tales of their early-shift shenanigans and weekend travels.
To hear Mirko’s son Maurizio tell it, back then the tapster assumed his position behind bar as if he were a pianist or typist, blindly grabbing bottles from their regular positions “just like the keys on a piano or computer” to serve up his go-to spirits. But one night, when Mirko went to fetch his trusty gin to continue crafting a Negroni for a customer, he pulled a bottle of prosecco that was mistakenly left in its place and poured it in the glass with the other ingredients.
To the patron’s surprise, and soon, Mirko’s, the result was a sparkling, successful twist on an old standby, albeit a sbagliato (“wrong”) one. The bubbly concoction quickly became a popular order at Bar Basso before ultimately spreading to the rest of Milan, Italy, and the world in the ensuing decades. Today, the drink—offered now as it was then in comically oversized, hand-blown glasses—is on the shortlist for must-try experiences in Milan.
As is Bar Basso itself.
To enter the establishment in 2017 is to enter it in 1967, when Mirko purchased it from the original owner, Giuseppe Basso. The vibe — pink walls, marble floors, glowing chandeliers, tiny cafe tables, and Sinatra on the stereo — and the clientele — “fashion designers, plumbers, professors, cops, and robbers,” Maurizio says — remain largely unchanged a half-century later, “save for a fresh coat of paint that we reapply every once in awhile.”
The only difference? These days, Maurizio—a buoyant 57-year-old with red-framed specs and an infectious, sing-song Milanese accent—runs the show. Although if you peeked in the back of Bar Basso in the early ‘70s, you probably would’ve spotted the boy cleaning strawberries while his father manned the counter. “My school was only three blocks away from the bar back then,” Maurizio says, “so sometimes I’d come in on my walk home and help out while my dad finished his shift.”
Bar Basso’s usual cast of characters, including a foreman, photographer, and bicycle manufacturer, welcomed Maurizio into their inner circle, and the kid quickly became hooked on bar life. “I loved their conversations and their camaraderie, and how everyone was so lighthearted,” Maurizio says. “I just really responded to that kind of attitude.”
Though it took a coming-of-age trip to California—where he slummed it for a few semesters at UC Berkeley in the early ‘80s, studying American literature and “having lots of drinks with girls in wine bars” — to know for sure, being a bar man was literally in Maurizio’s blood. After World War II, Mirko made waves in Venice for helping introduce the American cocktail bar concept to Italy, and transformed another city’s drinking habits when he migrated to Milan in the late ‘60s. Meanwhile, Maurizio had a front-row seat to the revolution.
“Before the Counterculture really hit, Milan was a stiff place,” he says. “Most bars were pretty much gentlemen’s clubs. It was hard to find a lady drinking on her own. But then ‘68 came along, and it was a big change. People were more keen to discover other lifestyles, so they eventually became a little more curious about things — including cocktails. My father brought all he had learned from Venice to this small city bar in Milan.”
Maurizio officially joined the family business after a mandatory military stint in the mid-‘80s, and slung Sbagliatos (among 500 other menu mainstays) next to his old man for the next three decades, as well as a staff of bartenders and waiters he’s known since he was a child. One Bar Basso vet, Giorgio, joined the team in 1970 and retired in 2010, but eventually found his way back into the weekend rotation.
“A couple years ago I heard that he was part time at another bar,” Maurizio says. “So I asked him, ‘Why the hell aren’t you working here?’ Now he comes in on Fridays and Saturdays. He’s 74, and he forgets things sometimes, but it doesn’t matter because he’s so genuine with our people that we don’t really care.”
Sadly, the Bar Basso family lost a member — its most important one — when Mirko passed away last year at age 86. Maurizio follows his innovative lead by continuing to create his own happy accidents behind bar, but the son honors the father’s legacy in a deeper way, too.
“My dad had what I call a ‘showbiz’ approach to running the bar — he’d leave his troubles at the door when he went to work,” Maurizio says. “When you work in this business, you deal with all of humanity. Everyone has the same problems. They all deal with the possibility that life can be really great, but also very, very shitty sometimes. My dad recognized that. He was always in a good mood; he wasn’t jovial or stupid, but he was very good at handling people. So I try to set the same mood.”
Maurizio doesn’t have kids of his own, but he hopes a nephew might keep Bar Basso’s lights on — and Mirko’s spirit alive — when he calls it quits. Not that he’s looking to leave bar life behind anytime soon. Hell, he can’t.
“If God allows me to be lucky enough to be healthy for another 20 years, I’ll keep doing this,” he says. “But when you work here, you really don’t think much about retiring anyway. Because the older you get, the more interesting this gets. Older people give everything more flavor. We have more perspective. We have more stories.”