To spritz, or not to spritz?
April 28, 2017
“To spritz, or not to spritz?” That is very much the question as the hour of “Aperitivo” approaches in Venice.
On my first visit to Venice many years ago with my sister, we were looking for a restaurant in Dorsoduro. We stopped outside one with a good review posted in its misted window – it looked packed, so we walked on. The next place was almost empty, so we went back to the first, braved the crowd standing at the bar to wait for a table…. and wondered what to drink. My mother used to drink Campari, so we ordered it from the barman, who poured generous measures and instructed us to take a sip, then he topped it up with white wine, explaining “it makes it taste ‘piu dulce’ ” (milder, sweeter).
With hindsight, I guess that was when I tasted my first spritz. We soon learned to ask for “spritz bitter”, usually Campari topped up with wine and a splash of soda. As I understood it, the drink was a legacy of the Austrian occupation of the city in the 19th century.
Spritz is a measure of Campari or alternative aperitif liqueur (read on for more about these), served over ice with a juicy green olive (sometimes black) on a stick, a slice of orange (occasionally lemon), topped up with wine (usually Prosecco, but not necessarily), and a splash of soda. Yes I know, it’s complicated…..
That’s Aperol on the left, Campari on the right
Of course Donna Leon’s crime novels provide a compelling window into Venetian culture. In “A Question of Belief”, as Venice experiences a debilitating heatwave, Commissario Brunetti and Inspector Vianello leave the Questura to discuss a case. “It was after eleven, so both men ordered a spritz“. While tourists are to be seen everywhere in bars and restaurants with a large goblet, residents will typically take their spritz at the bar, in a small wine glass.
Campari is one of the best known Italian aperitif drinks, with a hefty 25% alcohol. In 2004 Campari acquired the Aperol brand (11% alcohol), and successfully positioned it as “the Venetian Spritz”. In my book, it’s a triumph of marketing over taste; with its orange colour and sweetish taste, you could be drinking the English soft drink Lucozade.
Graduates wearing laurel wreaths celebrate with jugs of Aperol Spritz outside the Red Caffe, Campo Santa Margharita
There are many other brands to consider; here are a couple of the better known:
Select – its label claims it was “Born in Venice in 1920”, Select is a vivid candy red, fruitier than Aperol, less bitter than Campari. 14% alcohol.
Cynar – the artichoke on the label is a bit of a giveaway of the main ingredient. Brown in colour, gentler than Campari, it makes an agreeable spritz.
Cynar & Select
This year I was introduced to “Spritz Hugo” (pronounced OOH-go). It’s an alternative version for the summer: Prosecco with elderflower syrup and a splash of soda, garnished with mint leaves. It’s named for Hugo Pratt, whose cartoon book series “Corto Maltese” can be seen in most Italian bookshop windows.
If you want to look as if you’re drinking spritz but don’t want alcohol, try “un’ analcolico” (soft drink) such as Crodino, Gingerino or Chinotto. They’re the same colour as bitters, and usually served with ice and a slice.
I can’t help thinking the true spritz should be red, reminiscent of all those picture postcard sunsets….
We did notice a little resistance creeping in among the locals, though. There’s a sign in Vino Vero, a bar in Cannaregio:
KEEP CALM AND FORGET SPRITZ (we love wine….)
Vino Vero II, Fondamenta Misericordia, Cannaregio 2497F
Meanwhile, at buzzing El Refolo on Via Garibaldi in Castello, tourists and locals alike are enjoying their Spritz of choice, whether Aperol, Campari or Cynar…..