Spritz: Italy's Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, with Recipes

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9781607748854: Spritz: Italy's Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, with Recipes

A narrative-driven book on the surprising history and current revival of spritz cocktails (a wine-based drink served as an aperitif), with 50 recipes, including both historical classics and modern updates.

From Milan to Los Angeles, Venice to New York, the spritz—Italy’s bitter and bubbly aperitivo cocktail—has become synonymous with a leisurely, convivial golden hour. But the spritz is more than just an early evening cocktail—it’s a style of drinking. In Spritz, Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau trace the drink’s origins to ancient Rome, uncover its unlikely history and culture, explore the evolution of aperitivo throughout Northern Italy, and document the spritz’s revival around the world. From regional classics to modern variations, Spritz includes dozens of recipes from some of America’s most lauded bartenders, a guide to building a spritz bar, and a collection of food recipes for classic Italian snacks to pair alongside.

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About the Author:

Talia Baiocchi is the editor-in-chief of Punch and the author of James Beard Award-nominated Sherry. She has written for Bon Appétit, Saveur, and many more. She lives in Brooklyn.

Leslie Pariseau is the former deputy editor of Punch. She has written for the New York Times, GQ, Esquire, and Saveur. She lives in Brooklyn.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction
The Italian word sprezzatura doesn’t have an English translation. Coined in the early sixteenth century by Renaissance author Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier (1528), sprezzatura implied the sort of effortless grace that royal attendants of that gilded era embodied. For Castiglione, sprezzatura was a definitive pillar of true art—to work so hard at something that its beauty, to the beholder, appeared easy, agile, blithe. It was, in essence, the art of concealing
art’s design. 

Today the word has taken on a more colloquial meaning. It’s often tossed around in menswear publications in reference to details of rakish sophistication—imperfectly folded pocket squares, oxfords worn without socks, the perfect five o’clock stubble. Although the spritz and sprezzatura are not officailly related, it’s this I-woke-up-like-this mix of beauty and ease that perhaps best describes the drink. 

This would, admittedly, be the perfect place to tell the story of our respective first spritzes, but neither of us can remember when we met the Technicolor dreamboat for the first time. It was likely during our “formative” drinking years, on one of a couple trips to Italy in the mid-2000s, wherein the spritz was likely shoved into an evening that very well could’ve included everything from red wine to lighter fluid (not really, but practically)—hence the foggy memory.
We do, however, remember when the drink became a part of our everyday routines, about three summers ago. Little did we know that this frivolous cocktail, seemingly built to be tossed back with abandon, had such a backstory.
 
While the proto-spritz can be traced back to Greek and Roman times, the modern spritz has its roots—the Italian mythos goes—in Hapsburg-occupied northern Italy in the nineteenth century, when Austrian soldiers introduced the practice of adding a spritz (spray) of water to the region’s wines, in an effort to make them more pleasing to their Riesling-weaned palates. The drink went through a number of iterations, first with the inclusion of soda water at the turn of the nineteenth century, then the addition of the all-important bitter element (which made it both undeniably Italian and a proper cocktail) in the 1920s and early 1930s, and finally the widespread addition of prosecco in the 1990s. Today, the spritz archetype is more or less a combination of three parts prosecco, two parts bitter liquer, and one part soda. And thanks to Aperol, it’s now Italy’s most popular cocktail. 

But more than just the ideal combination of bubbles and bitterness in a low-alcohol package, the spritz has become a window into understanding not only the evolution of Italian cocktail culture
but also the importance of ritual and leisure to Italian identity.

In America, our homegrown cultural reference point for the spritz (or “spritzer,” as ladies of a certain generation might refer to it) is a less enchanted one. It’s a word that, for decades, was synonymous with perms, thong leotards, Richard Simmons, salad bars, and blush wine. Born as a half-hearted diet fad in the 1980s, the white wine spritzer was the softer sister of the vodka-soda—a monument to the era that oversaw the slow death of sophisticated flavors (and, simultaneously, many overwrought attempts at the opposite). But the current cocktail renaissance has left no stone unturned. 

Now, in place of the spritzer, there are countless riffs on the bitter, bubbly, low-alcohol formula that has become nothing short of a phenomenon in Italy. But in true American fashion, the drink’s blueprint has birthed an entire category of new drinks here, from those that swap in lambrusco for prosecco, tonic for soda water, sherry for white wine, and shrubs for fresh fruit. And though not always explicitly called spritzes, the low-alcohol cocktail movement, which includes classic aperitivi (drinks meant to open a meal, see page 14) like the Americano (page 99), coolers, and more, often carries spritzes under its own umbrellas of easygoing effervescence. Spritzes incognito, you might say. 

With all of this avant-garde spritzing happening anew in the United States (which we’ve explored with great vigor), we wondered what might be going on with the spritz in its spiritual home. How was it faring amidst the incredible success of the Aperol Spritz campaign, and what secrets did its stomping grounds in northern Italy still hold? It was out of a sense of duty that we went off to find the answers to these very important questions.
Over the course of ten days, we cut a path across northern Italy, from the many old bacari (wine bars) in Venice to the legendary Bar Basso in Milan to the old gilded cafés of Turin. In the process, we discovered that the spritz’s biggest secret is that it really is much more than a recipe or a category of drinks that calls for the mixing of Italian booze and wine. The spritz is a regional perspective on the aperitif—or, as Leonardo Leuci, one of the owners of the Roman cocktail bar The Jerry Thomas Project and a leading expert on Italian cocktails, eloquently points out, “a cultural way that certain regions in the north—Veneto, Trentino, Friuli—think about aperitifs.” 
It’s also a mantra, an attitude, and a state of being. 

The spritz really is sprezzatura itself.
What we aim to offer you in the pages to follow is a glimpse of the spritz’s past and present, in Italy and in the American craft cocktail bar. We also hope to translate how the spritz became so much more than a recipe and a marketing campaign, but part of a ritual and a means to understand an entire country’s philosophy on socializing—the “spritz life,” if you will. 
And after many a golden hour spent in the north of Italy, we wanted to extend and share the ritual back home, so we’ve provided you with all of the advice and tools to create your own aperitivo hour (Italian happy hour)—from building your go-to spritz bar to devising the ideal snack spread to match. We’ve created a framework of drink recipes that present the evolution of the spritz from classic to modern to the drink’s philosophical relatives. But they are simply that: a set of little tried-and-true blueprints that are meant less as ending points than
as trailheads. 

So, without further ado: spritz on. 

It all began with the Greeks and Romans, naturally. 

Back in the fourth and fifth century B.C., when Alexander III was slaying his way to “Great” and Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were fathering modern philosophy, these men were also, for all intents and purposes—proto-spritzing. 

During the heady days of empire building, it was considered gauche to drink wine without first mixing it with water. “Only Dionysus, they believed, could drink unmixed wine without risk,” writes Tom Standage in A History of the World in 6 Glasses. Drunkenness, as it were, was not next to godliness. Thus, lengthening and diluting the concentrated wines of the day meant that you could, say, drink a pitcher of wine at the symposium without getting yourself in trouble with the symposiarch (essentially an ancient mash-up of host and chaperone). 
After Rome overtook Greece as the dominant Mediterranean powerhouse in the middle of the second century B.C., many of the cultural achievements of the Greeks lived long in Roman culture,
not least among them the cultivation and appreciation of wine. 

As the Italian peninsula established itself as the premier supplier of wine to the Mediterranean basin, a number of Greek wine-mixing rituals were improved upon, notably the addition of water to wine, or even seawater, as the Greek wines of Cos and Lesbos became famous for. Falernian, a white wine grown on the slopes of present-day Mount Massico near the border between Campania and Lazio, was considered the most expensive and sought-after wine in the Roman Empire, and one of the most mythologized in the history of wine. In a testament to the importance of the “proto-spritzing” ritual, even the oldest and most prized vintages of Falernian were mixed with water—an act akin to dumping your water glass into a decanter full of very old, and very expensive, Montrachet. 

Bacchus wept. 
While Falernian loomed large in the Roman psyche, a number of other wines established themselves as all the rage; most notable among them (at least for our purposes) was Setine. A spritz of sorts, Setine, or Setinum, was a strong, sweet wine often diluted with snow that became the premier summer drink and a pan-seasonal favorite of Augustus, owing both to its flavor (according to the Roman poet Martial, it tasted of salty Chian figs, for what it’s worth) and the fact that it did not cause him indigestion. Other wines, like Mulsum, which had honey added to it; Conditum, which was mixed with herbs and spices; and Rosatum, which was flavored with roses, were often consumed as aperitivi. 

Fast forward 2,000 years, and the foundation of our modern notion of the aperitivo drink is being built, bar by bar, in northern Italy—first in the northwest with vermouth in the eighteenth century, bitter liqueurs in the nineteenth century, and a combination of vermouth and bitters at the beginning of the twentieth century (hello, Americano). At the same time, the northeast is busy with its own interpretation of the archetypal aperitivo cocktail: the spritz. 
Water into Wine

The word “spritz”—derived from the German spritzen, meaning “to spray”—is the first clue to the modern origins of the drink. The Italian legend is that the spritz either originated in the northeast of Italy in the nineteenth century, when the region was ruled by the Hapsburgs (centuries-strong Austro-Hungarian imperialists who had some notorious trouble with inbreeding), or during World War I, when Austrian soldiers were, likewise, a fixture in the region. 
These folks, used to their high-acid Rieslings and Grüners, apparently didn’t take to the wines of the area, the story goes, which—depending on who you ask—were considered either too bitter, too strong, of poor quality, or all of the above. The Austrians ultimately resorted to ordering their wine with a spritz of water to dilute it, in an unintentional nod to the ancients. 
As with most Italian tales of uncertain origin, the spritz story has acquired a very Italian dose of embellishment—including one dead-serious story a notable Italian bartender told us involving beach-going German counts and Valpolicella—to the point of parody. Roberto Pasini, in his book on the spritz phenomenon in Italy, Guida allo Spritz, sarcastically recounts an alternative origin story wherein a bartender, outraged at the notion that his patron would ask for water in his wine, punches him in the face, causing a “spritz” of blood from his busted nose to splash into his glass, coloring his drink a shade of red. “Okay, I allowed myself some license,” he jokes, “but I swear I based it on the most reliable historical hypotheses.”

Whether or not the modern spritz’s origins involve foreign soldiers with an aversion to the strength (or quality) of the wines is difficult to confirm—and every person really will give you a different answer. What we do know is that the early spritz was simply a combination
of white wine and still water, à la Greek- and Roman-style. 
But as far as we’re concerned, even if the widespread practice of adding water to wine in the north of Italy—or at least the introduction of the word “spritz” to define it—does belong to the Hapsburgs, the spritz really doesn’t become the modern spritz until it gains its now-inseparable sparkle. Or as Guido Zarri, the former owner of Select (the Venetian red bitter brand often credited as the first to be added to the spritz formula), puts it, “the spritz is born when soda is born.” 
While soda water was present in Italy by the end of the nineteenth century—and siphons began appearing in aspirational advertisements for everything from Campari to Bitter Pastore in the first years of the twentieth century—according to Fulvio Piccinino, a drinks historian
and the author of La Miscelazione Futurista (Futurist Mixology), it
only started to become a widespread fixture in bars about a decade and a half into the twentieth century. 
By the late 1910s, soda water was at least popular enough that it prompted the invention of what remains one of Italy’s most important aperitivo cocktails: the Americano, which is documented for the first time in Ferruccio Mazzon’s 1920 Guida al Barman. During this same time, the first iteration of the modern spritz began planting its flag in the northeast of Italy and beyond. You could order the spritz liscio (plain) or spritz bianco (white)—a simple mixture of soda water and white wine that is now known as the “spritzer” in the United States and Austria, gespritzer or schorle in Germany, fröccs in Hungary, gemist in Croatia, and so on.

This white spritz, though, is neither a cocktail (the common creed is that a cocktail is not a cocktail if it contains less than three ingredients) nor exactly Italian. Those two designations come with the addition, in the 1920s and 1930s, of what is arguably the spritz’s most important ingredient: bitter liqueur. When it comes to the modern Italian perspective on mixed drinks (and, sidebar, fascism—but never mind that), it’s in this period that, according to Fulvio Piccinino, “everything is born.”
The Rise of the Italian Bitter 
The production of bitter liqueurs—wine- or spirit-based concoctions infused with bitter herbs, citrus, other ingredients, and sweeteners—and vermouth had become a cultural imperative in Turin by the middle of the nineteenth century (and earlier, in the case of vermouth).
Coffee, it turned out, was—then as it is now—inseparable from alcohol in Italy. By 1842 Turin had around one hundred coffeehouses, or cafés, that played host to a broad cross-section of society. Decked out in marble, gold, and glass, with preternatural lighting that seems to melt into the furnishings, the surviving cafés (many of them beautifully preserved) exude a sort of halo effect—as if to remove any doubt about their divinity within Italian culture. Manned by bow-tied and white-jacketed barmen, these cafés in their original forms may have been all-business in the front, but there was very often a party in the back. 
The cellars and backrooms of these cafés became defacto labs manned by a maître licoriste or specialiare—an alcoholic alchemist of sorts tasked with, among other things, mixing formulas for bitters, both proprietary and from established recipes. It’s here that some of the most important figures in the world of Italian drinks—notably Gaspare Campari (of Campari) and Alessandro Martini (of Martini & Rossi)—would get their starts. And just as the seeds of the American Revolution were sown in our early taverns, the Turinese coffeehouses played host to many of the early intellectual rumblings of the Risorgimento, or the political movement that led to the unification of Italy. 

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