Prosecco? Anti-secco more like. I hate the stuff and it hates me right back. In fact, if I’d known an investigation into the Aperol phenomenon would involve even a drop of prosecco, you wouldn’t be reading this piece. But Civilian needed virgin tastebuds; my editor is so hip he’s been drinking Aperol with prosecco for a decade and still can’t believe that London bartenders now know what he’s asking for. Two years ago, Aperol and prosecco was such an insider thing even Soho House barstaff didn’t know how to charge for it. They used to think it was two different drinks. This summer, they just said, “Oh, you mean Aperol spritz?”
The drink of summer 2013 is well on its way to being the world’s aperitivo. The Italian spritz has gone Godzilla via Aperol, the bittersweet, herby orange liquor invented back in 1919 by the Barbieri Brothers in Padua. The city does a nifty version of a spritz crawl over Piazza Capitaniato, Piazza dei Signori and Piazza delle Erbe (if you’re tempted, I suggest you stay at Hotel Belludi – inexpensive, chic, and well-positioned for the spritz).
Originally designed as a health and diet drink, Aperol is sweeter, with less alcohol than its stablemate Campari (Aperol is a light 11% proof, compared to Campari’s 20%+). You could think of Aperol like Campari’s younger sister, who is also a model with long legs, a cute nose and great hair.
I was even served a Champari – so-named by London friends who “invented” the combination of Campari and champagne – in Scotland, at Fisher’s in Leith, when they ran out of Aperol
If you’re going to order one of these pretty orange drinks, you may as well know the history – it impresses cocktail snobs who see those now quaffing the spritz – and indeed the negroni – outside of Italy as arrivistes. Austrians controlled the Veneto after the Napoleonic wars. Beer-drinkers, they spritzed the local wine with water. That’s how the spritz became the drink of Venice and its surrounds. Spritz also means “to go for a drink’”, so to spritz is social, but the drink is divine. As well as Campari and Aperol, spritz can also be made with the bitter artichoke-y grand dame of liquers Cynar (dark brown, 33% alcohol), or with the purplish Select, a spirit unique, as far as I can tell, to Venice. These variations of spritz are not what John Ruskin meant when he called Venice “a splendour of miscellaneous spirits”, but it fitz the spritz so let it sitz.
Venetians are naturally shrewd. This is what happens when an ancient merchant city spends centuries as a tourist destination. Over 60,000 people see Venice every day and now, as the most popular cruise port in Europe, the fragile place is being loved to death. Venice is also a great sucking beast, enticing you with its wares so beautifully that you won’t notice the money floating from your pockets. The spritz, I figure, is part of it: as the alcohol takes effect, I find myself gazing at the crocheted parasols for sale. Suddenly, I want a gondolier’s stripey shirt and to visit Murano for hand-blown glass bowls I don’t need. I want to buy things to trap and take home the delicious feeling of being in the sunshine, surrounded by Venetian beauty, history and energy.
Venice is, as Thomas Mann said, “half fairy tale and half tourist trap”: a candy store for shoppers, a maze for pedestrians and a freeway for boatmen. The last time I was in Venice the world was analogue. I ate bad food and walked a lot. That was all I could afford, although I knew walking wasn’t ideal in a city with rivers instead of streets. The best way to get around is by water taxi – a system of transport that, a scholarly friend assures me, wreaks havoc on the ancient city’s environment. As much as I try to keep this in mind, I’m hysterical with joy the first time I hire a lacquered wooden Serenella water taxi to whisk me through the Grand Canal. I gasp as it squeezes under small bridges over lesser canals. After years, I am at last in the Venice of my dreams, gliding through Venetian splendor in a water taxi with the sun shining and the knowledge that, thanks to that magic 11%, I can drink an Aperol spritz without falling over or telling strangers that I love them. I can drink like a European, for once – not the milk-drinking American lightweight I am really.
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Of course, the best place to spritz is at the famous Gabbiano Bar situated poolside (the only poolside) at the Cipriani. To get to this star-studded place of legend, I have to cross a lagoon. There are various options here: you can take a €2 public ferry, or a €80 water taxi, or, um, you can do what I do and zoom over for free from the hotel’s private jetty. I wait next to a mature woman wearing a crisp cotton shift so blindingly white and mysteriously unwrinkled in the swelter that I think she’s some elderly angel. Or, maybe, she’s a spritz sprite. Try saying that five times fast.
As the gleaming mahogany “Shirley” craft arrives, I feel I’ve crossed some celestial barrier. The seven-minute boat ride from Piazza San Marco to the tip of the Giudecca wipes tourist funk away. Cool and pinkly soothing, The Cipriani is all the glamour without the clamour. You could order a real white peach Bellini, made with fresh peaches and a touch of raspberry for colour as they do at Harry’s Bar – but you’d do very well to have an Aperol spritz made by Cipriani’s legendary head barman Walter Bolzonella. He tells me that the original Aperol spritz is made with white wine, not prosecco. Also, he likes to make his with four parts Aperol, not the 3-2-1 as advertised. With his uncanny ability to tell what cocktail a person will order the minute they set foot in his bar, Mr Bolzonella is the Cipriani’s secret weapon. Sure, he may be busy mixing Goodnight Amigos, a cocktail built with George Clooney’s own brand tequila, but he still treats me like a star. I think he does this for everyone but, boy, it feels good.
Meantime, back in the UK, spritz is suddenly available everywhere. From Islington to Fitzrovia, Soho to Glasgow, you can spritz. I was even served a Champari – so-named by London friends who “invented” the combination of Campari and champagne – in Scotland, at Fisher’s in Leith, when they ran out of Aperol. So now, spritz is my drink of choice. It tastes like summer on ice and reminds me of the rushing beauty of Venice.
But keep in mind that the proper Aperol spritz arrives with a big ole unpitted green olive sticking out of it on a long wooden skewer. This is important: when you try to use the long stick as a straw, that’s the spritz signal to stop drinking and go home.
Karen Krizanovich is a writer, radio and TV broadcaster and movie script editor. She is also a trained voice-over artist, specialising in chocolate voices, robot/Vulcan, American regional accents and anything throaty.