This very Italian cocktail has surprisingly non-Italian origins.
In Italy, wine and cuisine are so closely connected with their origins that they tend to stick to their hometown, no matter how popular they are abroad. Pasta al carbonara in Piedmont? Only if you’re in a special Roman restaurant. Barolo in Chianti? Not likely. Perhaps the one thing besides pizza that has breached all borders are Italian cocktails. And if any can claim to be the most widespread, both in Italy and abroad, it’s the spritz: a bitter-sweet, fizzy orange drink that is essential for aperitivo, or as an aperitif.
Though it can be found all over Italy, the spritz’s origins are Venetian. I doubted this the first time someone told me. “Spritz,” what kind of an Italian word is that? A negroni is much more Italian, both in name and intensity, like it holds a deep, concentrated history in its rocks glass. The spritz feels too new in a country where everything is tied to a two-hundred-year old legend. Its name sounds borrowed, like computer or email.
Actually, I discovered, both counts are correct: the spritz does have two hundred years of history behind it, and its name is not of Italian descent. But that doesn’t make this cocktail any less Italian.
The spritz entered cocktail history in the 1800s when Venice was under Austrian rule. The invading beer drinkers craved something more quaffable than sips of the local wine, so they added a splash, or spritzen, of water to their wine glasses.
The original spritz was simply that: water and wine. In fact, today ordering a spritz in Budapest (don’t forget that the late 1800s was the time of Austria-Hungary) will get you the same mix. To anyone with a bit of spritz knowledge, there is really only one flavor: a mix of seltzer, orange Aperol, and a splash of Prosecco. So I knew something was off at a bar in the Jewish Quarter when the menu included a “white” and a “red” spritz.
Huh. I thought they were “orange.”
So I ordered “white” when prompted. Then I watched in disbelief as the bar tender filled a tall glass with half-wine-half-water, no ice, and I giggled the whole time I drank it. They called this a spritz?
Apparently, in Budapest they stick to the original spritz, rather than adopting the new and, in my humble opinion, improved version. I’m just delighted to know they weren’t pouring old wine dregs and water for the ignorant American, and that it actually was a cocktail.
The spritz you’ll find at any bar in Italy today is most commonly made with 3 parts Prosecco, 2 parts Aperol, and 1 part seltzer (“As easy as 3, 2, 1” as Aperol’s website helpfully provides). It went through its own evolution to get to this point, with various ratios, wines, and liquors added. Aperol became the go-to liquor in 1919 when the Barbarini brothers invented it in Padua. It is still common enough to find spritz made with dry white wine, senza sparkles, but I prefer the extra fun fizz with Prosecco.
Aside from the above variations, you may ask for any of the following at Italian bars – just make sure you taste the “new-and-improved original,” first:
Spritz with Campari: Aperol is exchanged for Campari, a more intense version of Aperol: orange flavored, bitterer, and higher in alcohol (20+%).
Spritz with Cynar: Aperol is exchanged for Cynar, which has suffered unjustly at the expense of its iconic artichoke image – artichoke is one ingredient in this amaro, but no, it does not taste like artichokes. Higher in alcohol than Campari (33%), bitter-sweet, and herbal.
Spritz with fill-in-the-blank bitters: The above two are popular variations, but any amaro may be substituted for the Aperol.