We're at Atlas Restaurant eating lightly dipped, expertly fried picollo fritto vegetable tempura, basically with a lemon garlic aioli and trying for the umpteenth time to understand what it is, exactly, people like about Campari. The bitter Italian aperitif is a polarizing spirit among connoisseurs. Its fans call it "an acquired taste," but we're gonna call bullshit on that. No matter how many times we've attempted to "acquire" Campari's taste, no matter how often we've sat at crowded plazas donning stylish sunglasses thinking that we should buy in to Campari and soda because it's the peak of Europhistication, we've always come up short. Each time it goes something like this.
Drawn by its vivid crimson glow and ticket to fanciness, we decide once again to order the bitter spirit, a blend of vermouth and herbs. "A Campari and soda, please." It arrives looking so pretty. We subtly survey the surroundings to see if anyone's watching hopefully not and then draw the glass to our mouth. The drink hits our lips, passes over our buds and, in an instant, our face is as pinched and ugly as if we've just chomped on a lemon rind encased in ear wax and dipped in coffee grounds. Blecchhy. We try again and again, and the result is always the same.
Maybe it'll be better in a Negroni: Campari, gin and sweet vermouth. That's how they do it at Atlas, served in a rocks glass with ice. We like gin, and the sweet vermouth might temper the Campari's bitterness.
Wrong. Doesn't help a bit. The Campari eclipses the other ingredients, and the result is even more bitter.
That's not Atlas' fault, of course. For all we know, they make the best Negroni this side of Tuscany. And they sure as hell make a mean French 75 (gin, sour mix and Champagne).
Last year Atlas doubled the size of their DeBaliviere neighborhood space, and we couldn't be happier about it. Foodies adore the place, and after enjoying an ace, creamy carrot soups and tender, melt-in-the-mouth duck, we heartily agree. What's best, the restaurant is, relatively speaking, a great deal. Entrees that elsewhere in the city would run $30 are, at Atlas, $18. We escaped from a monster Atlas meal with a tab of $80 that, joy of joys, could have easily come in at $120.
Perhaps one day the world of Campari will open up to us. Like an overcast day that gives way to a glorious sunset, the bitterness will reveal itself to be dynamic and richly textured. We used to hate Brussels sprouts, and now we love them. But realistically it's doubtful, and it's time to face the truth. No matter how hard we try, we (gulp) simply aren't as sophisticated as we want to be. And, well, we really don't like Campari.