Spritz: Italy's Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, with Recipes - Talia Baiocchi, Leslie Pariseau (2016)
THE SPRITZ LIFE
ICE. PROSECCO. BITTERS. SODA. Olive. Orange slice. Clink, fizz, splash, fizz, splash. At 7:00 p.m., that is the sound of Italy.
A drink that hit its stride amidst The Italian Miracle, a period of economic growth following World War II, the modern spritz is something of a sociological oddity—a vestige of la dolce vita and the see-and-be-seen cosmopolitanism of midcentury aperitivo, exported with flagrant democracy to a new generation that knows nothing of economic miracles. The “spritz life,” or #spritzlife as it were, is a “revision of that era,” says Fabio Parasecoli, an associate professor of food studies at The New School.
La dolce vita if only for an hour.
The word aperitivo is derived from the Latin aperire, which means “to open.” It refers, plainly, to the ritual of taking a drink—nowadays with snacks—to open one’s stomach before a meal. It is Italy’s take on happy hour. But it is also, as Roberto Bava, the managing director of Cocchi, points out, “an attitude”—a devil-may-care moment in the day when the Italian Dream (one not unlike America’s, just with less working) seems a little more tangible.
If you stumble into any bacaro in Venice during the golden hours, or into Turin’s Piazza San Carlo, or Milan’s Navigli, you will find variations on the same scene—a sea of orange and red spilling out onto the street, clouds of cigarette smoke, and café tables littered with tiny plates of crostini, potato chips, and olives. How, we wondered, did everyone simultaneously agree to do this every day? To meet at the same place and drink the same drink, at the same time, like loyal employees clocking in just to hang out?
In the early spring, we made our way from the Veneto to Milan to Turin, along our own northern spritz crawl, four humans and their luggage crammed into a Fiat 500 like a version of National Lampoon’s Vacation in which the Griswolds trade their Wagon Queen Family Truckster for a Little Tike’s Cozy Coupe. All in the name of finding out.
As Americans raised with the urban promise of never having to do one thing twice, we tend to regard routine as a synonym for resignation. But Italy is a country made up of a million tiny rituals that crisscross into a repeating pattern, which plays out like a never-ending run of a Broadway musical. By 8:00 a.m., it’s the whistle of the espresso machine against the staccato of cups hitting saucers, a woman yelling something-or-other from a third-floor window as she pins sheets to a clothesline, while bicycle bells chirp like a gaggle of earlybirds announcing the day.
By 1:00 p.m., the ensemble emerges again. Waiters thread through outdoor tables, carrying steaming plates of pasta, the vibration of the customers’ chatter punctuated by the swish of a wine bottle being pulled from an ice bucket. A thousand Lambrettas hum in the distance, providing the midday rhythm, until espresso cups meet saucers again and the masses retreat.
It’d be easy to write these scenes off as cliché if they weren’t so pervasive in so many Italian cities. It’s as if the whole country cast a vote on what its day should look like, asking only that it unfold with the kind of grace uncommon to two humans perpetually buffed out by the friction of New York.
In the fluid hustle and flow of the typical Italian day, there is arguably no time more triumphant than the golden hours, when the crowds emerge again, descending upon bars and squares in a crescendo that’s a pack of tie-dye-and-denim-swaddled hippies away from the “Age of Aquarius” scene in Hair. They nibble on tramezzini (tiny crustless sandwiches) and crostini topped with everything from figs and chicken livers to baccalà mantecato, spritz in hand, turning piazzas into their very own urban living rooms.
Describing Venice’s St. Mark’s Square in a 1938 article for Corriere della Sera’s monthly magazine, La Lettura, entitled “Omaggio All’Aperitivo” (“Tribute to the Aperitif”), the author might as well be describing a scene today, detailing passengers descending from vaporetti (water taxis), while sirens hiss and the “waiter lines up battery after battery of shimmering glasses.” And for a moment, “everything on land and water seems to glimmer more than ever.”
It’s that glimmer that seems to live inside the spritz, like a snow globe that’s trapped the life you’d really like to have. A life spent sitting out in tables lining the narrow canals in Venice’s Canareggio neighborhood as the sun gets drowsy and the waterways turn into glassy two-way mirrors, a life where the long-lost era of gilded Venetian prosperity is merely a partition away. It’s practically a matter of ordinance that the spritz became the modern icon of aperitivo.
“Spritz Life?” asks Aperol at the end of its inaugural spritz campaign.
Who could say no?
APERITIVO TO THE PEOPLE
How far back the ritual of aperitivo goes really depends on how you define it. The Italians would be pleased about our invoking the Romans here, and it would not be false. The Romans did indeed have their own tradition of drinking wine flavored with herbs and spices to alleviate indigestion or other ills. And by medieval times, the term aperitivus had come to refer to anything, food or drink, that had the effect of stimulating the appetite, often including certain plants that were either cooked or mulled into wine. They kept the ritual alive, albeit amidst excessive violence and the history’s most devastating pandemic.
Not exactly la dolce vita, but still.
It was during the Renaissance that the first seeds of modern aperitivo were sown. Catherine de Médici, the Italian noblewoman who went on to marry King Henry II of France, was well known for her party-planning skills and, ultimately, her influence on French dining culture. When she arrived in the French court, she apparently brought her cooks, produce, tableware, manners, recipes, flair, and the social ritual of the pre-dinner drink with her. It was here that aperitivo became associated with the higher classes and typified by the ritual consumption of wine infused with herbs and sweetened primarily with honey.
But the social rite of Italian aperitivo as we know it today was born in the northwest as something of an urban manifestation of the rural Piedmontese tradition of merenda sinoira—sometimes referred to simply as merenda, meaning “snack” in Piedmontese dialect—wherein workers coming out from a day in the fields would join their families and colleagues for a sunset snack usually consisting of various cold foods, like salami and cheese, served outside with wine. The tradition usually ran through the farming season, from spring to early autumn, and eventually spread to noblemen and women who would practice a similar ritual when visiting their countryside villas in the summer.
With the birth of vermouth—often credited as the original aperitivo drink—in the late eighteenth century, a culture of pre-dinner consumption began to grow up in the aromatized wine’s hometown of Turin. But this was still largely a rite of the rich, as vermouth was, throughout much of the nineteenth century, considered un vino bianco di lusso, or a “luxury white wine,” as Alfio Durso Pennisi’s Dizionario Enologico (1910) describes it.
While it remained an upper-class affair, aperitivo had, by the early twentieth century, taken root in Milan, Genoa, Venice, and beyond. “From noon to one and nineteen to twenty it’s practically impossible to cross [Milan’s] Galleria without being seized by a friend eager to offer an aperitif,” writes the author of that same 1938 article in La Lettura. By this time the cities had also developed their own respective aperitivo vibes—something that persists today. Milan’s Galleria was “ecumenical and bourgeois,” Rome’s Via Veneto had “an easy spirit,” while Turin’s scene—housed beneath the city’s famous portici, or classical porticos—was “dignified and chatty.” If you really wanted to get the full effect of aperitivo, you had to head to Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, where “even the pigeons, it seems, are enchanting.”
In the years following the World War II—once Mussolini’s fascist government had been overthrown and Italy entered that famous period of economic growth—aperitivo became the collective, democratic social ritual it is today. The dream of Italy that took form in those Turinese coffeehouses during the middle-to-late nineteenth century of a unified, prosperous Italy had finally taken hold. It’s this era that bore the cultural kaleidoscope through which we still view Italy—all Lambrettas and Vespas, white linen, and Portofino; the Italy of Fellini and the era of “Hollywood on the Tiber.” This vision of the country is still exported (even to Italians) with the same tinge of exoticism reserved for tiki culture or the samba. And in a way, it’s this same vision of Italy that was repackaged for a new generation of drinkers in the 1990s.
THE SPRITZ TRAIL
Venice, it turns out, had no use for our tiny Fiat coupe. This is a walking city, and it’s a good thing, because there is a real reason why the Venetians are regarded as some of Italy’s most enthusiastic drinkers: they can drink.
Around two hundred sixty thousand people call the Floating City home, while an estimated twenty-two million pass through it each year. But despite the odds, the spritz life still feels most deeply ingrained, and best preserved in its true form, here. There are very few apericena buffets (the much-maligned mutation of aperitivo into cena, or dinner, featuring mostly cheap, low-quality food) and almost no overwrought cocktails outside the hotels; even updates on classic cicchetti (small bites, mean to be consumed at a bar) hew closely to, or riff off of, traditional Venetian recipes. And while food is not included in the price of your drink, as it generally is in Turin and Milan, a spritz will run you around three euros and accompanying cicchetti rarely crest over a euro or two.
Aperitivo hour is arguably at its finest in Canareggio—which feels a world away from St. Mark’s selfie sticks and packs of German tourists dressed as if ready, at any moment, to scale a cliff. As the sun began to set, we piled into any number of bacari, like Al Timon—a kinetic little spot that makes its bones during the golden hours serving plates piled high with crostini anointed with toppings like smoked mozzarella and tomatoes, baccalà mantecato, and chicken livers, all of it washed down with spritz al bitter after spritz al bitter. And then it’s on to the next one.
Like the tapas tradition in Spain—moving from bar to bar sampling a few small bites at each—aperitivo in Venice is best experienced as a moveable (mostly liquid) feast. Or, as the Venetians call it, giro di ombre, which refers both to a round of drinks (ombre is a dialectical word for glass of wine or drink) and the act of taking aperitivo in rounds—spreading it between a couple of bacari and letting it last as long as you can stand. (Tradition dictates that if you want to make it to dinner, you best limit the number of people you’re rolling with—each person in your group counts as one round.)
“[In Venice], teetotalers have great social problems,” says Michela Scibila, a Venice native and the author of a number of guides to the city’s wine bars and restaurants. No joke. We quickly acquired the hangovers to prove it.
From Venice and on through the spritz’s other two Veneto strongholds—Treviso (capital of prosecco) and Padua (home of Aperol)—you’ll find the same talent for drinking and a similar passion for aperitivo.
These surrounding regions hew relatively closely to Venetian tradition, with a few departures. In Padua, for example, you’ll often find slight variations of the spritz that include everything from Aperol to Cynar to Campari to Select to gin. Some even go so far as to assert that a true Paduan spritz features a combination of all five (god help those people).
Further north along the spritz trail, the variation that used to be much more common before the spritz became synonymous with Aperol still persists. Amidst the Dolomites, in Alto Adige, the spritz even loses its bitter altogether, subbing in acqua santa (holy water), which refers to an elderflower cordial that’s often made locally by allowing the flowers and sugar to ferment in the sun. It’s used in the Hugo Spritz—a simple mixture of elderflower syrup, mint, prosecco, and soda, garnished with a lemon—the second most popular spritz behind the classic Venetian formula.
Down from the mountains and through Brescia, the locals call their spritz pirlo, which, in the Brescian dialect, means “fall,” referring to the way the red bitter descends through the drink and to the bottom of the glass. Brescia is a Lombardian town just west of Lake Garda and about an hour by car from Milan, where Cappelletti’s red bitter—which originated just after World War I and is commonly referred to in the area as Specialino—has maintained a stronghold. It’s typically consumed with white wine and soda as a variation on the Bicicletta— a popular Campari-based Milanese version of the spritz invented in the 1930s.
It’s in Milan that the pre-dinner scene shifts drastically. We had our first Milanese spritz at Armani Café (yes, that Armani), a half-serious stop on our planned route, where you’ll find your reflection in every surface and no shortage of studded and bedazzled attire.
We wouldn’t dare judge Milan from this vantage point, but as a cosmopolitan town that’s provided the industrial heartbeat of Italy for decades, there’s no denying that it’s a severe, hulking city in comparison to Venice and its environs. But it’s true that beneath the facade there is more energy for the new than anywhere else in Italy—which is why aperitivo has strayed so far from tradition here, both in form and purpose.
“Milano is really the only city in Italy where aperitivo is a mix of pleasure and business at the same time,” says Maurizio Stocchetto, the owner of Bar Basso, one of Milan’s most famous and traditional bars and the birthplace of the Negroni’s bubbly cousin, the Negroni Sbagliato.
All mirrors and gold, emerald velvet, and vintage glassware, Bar Basso had us rubbing elbows with marketing men in suits, women who looked like they’d rolled out of a Dolce & Gabbana display window, old men, tourists, and a few sophisticated university students.
The bar swells, starting around 6:30 p.m., to two- or three-deep, a cabinet full of crostini and tramezzini are discharged to the tables and bar tops with rapid fire, while Negronis and their Sbagliato siblings are served in handblown goblets the size of pineapples.
Beyond legendary bars like Bar Basso and Caffé Camparino (a glittering art nouveau bar in the Galleria), Milan’s aperitivo trail twists and turns through spots serving everything from sushi to crudité, from spritzes and sbagliatos to craft cocktails that could’ve been plucked from any number of urban American menus. Milan is the only city where that pattern of tiny rituals is constantly being unraveled, and then raveled again.
But less than two hours away to the west, the clock seems determined to stop. Turin is a city that is as notorious for its stuck-in-time nature as Venice is for hitting the bottle. The capital of coffee and chocolate, and the former seat of the Savoy Kingdom, it feels more like a French city—hence its “little Paris” nickname—than an Italian one, with its baroque architecture, grand portico–encased walkways, and wide boulevards.
Culturally, it’s just as baroque. Its people are regarded as being among Italy’s most traditional, many of them taking their aperitivo in the same grandiose bars—Caffé Mulassano, Caffé Turin, Caffé San Carlo—that Turin residents frequented a century ago. And in a manner so dignified that it feels downright antimodern.
Fittingly, of all the northern Italian cities, there is no place where aperitivo is quite as grand. While Turin isn’t immune to the budget apericena deluge of soggy pizzetta and yesterday’s pasta, it’s here that a more buttoned-up sort of buffet spread has its longest history. Tiered platters piled with tiny stuzzichini, or “finger foods,” coiffed Turinese bathed in yellow light sipping spritz and vermouth—it’s a scene that likely would have made Catherine de Médici proud. “Under the portici,” the scene, it turns out, is indeed, “dignified and chatty.” And it’s fitting to have put our coupe to rest under those portici, where the ritual of aperitivo that bore the modern spritz began.
So, you might ask, all of this running around for just one drink? But who wouldn’t want to chase the drink that symbolizes, for much of Italy, that all-important transition from work to play?
It’s a drink splashed together with a rakish dedication to leisure, and one served during a sacred time of day that asks nothing except, says Roberto Bava of Cocchi, “that you be yourself.” And after one or two—like a beloved friend or trusted companion—the spritz’s bewitching plea to pause and drink draws out the best in all of us. Because who isn’t better, and perhaps more oneself, with a spritz in hand?