James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

The Mysterious Winter Drinking Habits of the Milanese

Photo by: Camilla Bianchi
Photo by: Camilla Bianchi

The Mysterious Winter Drinking Habits of the Milanese

Sambuca in Milan

“Let’s go for a round of fire!” my friend and Milan guide says.

Fire?

“Fire!”

From the bench we had huddled around in Via Patellani, a street lined with popular bars south of Milan’s center, everyone runs off to take refuge in a the night’s drinking: €5-lager-in-plastic-cups-if-you-want-to-drink-outdoors or €10-exotic-cocktail-with-ice-even-if-it’s-freezing.

Everyone but me. I stand, disoriented, numbed hands in pockets, baffled. What is a round of fire?

We walk to La Strada. Milanese in their 20s flock to this bar on weekdays and weekends, lured by this common formula: cheap-ish drinks + small bar = drink outdoors. “La Strada” means “the street” or “the road,” so at least here you know what you’re getting.

I scramble for answers my guide won’t give me. Is it absinthe? Are we just lighting drinks? Does he know what he’s doing?

We make our way through the people outside to the bar.

The barista puts down two glasses, no ice.

I start to have second thoughts. There must be a reason we’re the only ones who ordered this. The bartender says these are on him. This doesn’t make me feel any better. Then, he pours Sambuca (“because vodka doesn’t catch fire,” my guide says, disappointed), and my friend tells me to dip my finger in it while he does the same.

It doesn’t hurt, he says.

We pull out our fingers, and with a twitch of his arm he pulls a lighter out of his pocket and sets the fingers on fire. My hand on fire is not something I thought I’d see in my life, but it is mesmerizing. The flames are actually blue, not red, presumably because of the gas.

He’s right, it doesn’t hurt—until it does. A stinging sensation shakes me from my reverie. I mimic what he does: I put my finger in my mouth to put out the fire.

Then we neck the Sambuca. It tastes like sucking on a tank of anise-infused gas, except it’s probably more disgusting. I pick out the taste of the Sambuca: sweet, way too much anise, and so thick that it all lingers in my throat for seconds before I can get it down. Down with it goes all the gas in my mouth, too. It feels like it’s too much.

Later, I would speak about my experience with people from Milan, and found out I was almost the only one to have ever had a round of fire. Only one person had had a similar experience, but they called it “the fireman.”

Maybe my guide had made it all up.

After the round of fire, we walk back out into the cold, to the cocktail and lager-holding skeptics.

Was it really fire? they ask me. What was it?

I just told them it was great.

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