Every evening around 7 p.m., an apricot-colored glow steadily spreads over Piazza San Marco, the famous central square of Venice. It emanates not so much from the setting sun as from oversized glasses filled with the orange-hued drink known as Aperol Spritz, which proliferates at this time of day, recognized throughout Italy as aperitif hour. For a time, during the loneliest years of the pandemic, those orange orbs were rare. Now they’re back in full force, because for the billions of tourists flooding the city again as a human version of high waterVenice’s legendary high tides, aperitivo means one thing: an Aperol Spritz.
The word “aperitivo” (or aperitif in the plural) designates both a drink and a daily ritual that takes place from approximately 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. It comes from Latin aperitif, which means to open up – as in, to open up your appetite – and it usually involves a few salty (and free) snacks and a glass of something alcoholic. For Italians, the aperitivo is a fiercely protected tradition, a social ritual with one primary purpose: to bridge the gap between day and evening while ensuring no one gets too hungry or thirsty while waiting for dinner. Although there are regional variations on the theme, three drinks each associated with a different Italian city and each gilded with legend have become classics.
Milan’s king of cocktails
The Americano – a mix of Campari, sweet vermouth and a little sparkling water – is the oldest of the aperitivo triumvirate. In the 1860s, bartender Gaspare Campari invented his namesake liqueur, an infusion of bitter herbs, aromatic plants and citrus fruits. At his Milan bar, Caffè Campari, Gaspare began mixing the liqueur with Turin vermouth and served the drink under the name Milano-Torino.
Some 70 years later, an unknown soul decided to add sparkling water to the mix, and the Americano was born. The name could be a nod to Italian boxer Primo Carnera, who after winning a world championship in New York in 1933 was nicknamed “The Americano”. Or it could be from a Milanese bar where, in the 1930s, American tourists demanded a lighter version of the Milano-Turin. As with so many things in the cocktail world, opinions differ. You can debate all of this at Caffè Campari, still circulating in Milano-Turin (and Americano), 160 years later. But when I asked a few Milanese where I should go for an aperitif, they all said the same thing: Bar Basso.
On a Saturday at 7 p.m., the Bar Basso comes alive, a feat for a place whose brocaded walls, faded velvet armchairs and waiters in black jackets were fashionable when the spot was created in 1947. finding a place among the families and groups of friends crowding around tables that quickly fill with plates of greasy olives, oily focaccia and mini tuna sandwiches.
Mirko Stocchetto bought Bar Basso from its founder in 1967. At the time, bars in Milan still had a bit of a sleazy reputation, but Mirko had learned the trade in his native Venice, where he worked at the iconic Harry’s Bar . Back then, Venetian bars had a more polished sheen, says Mirko’s son Maurizio, who now owns Basso.
“Thanks to the movie roman holidays, the Americans had started coming,” says Maurizio. “It was the time of The good life, by Peggy Guggenheim, and you brought in all those jet-setters. Americans were big players and big drinkers, and they loved their cocktails.
Mirko set out to bring this glamorous cocktail culture to Milan. Like the good Venetian that he was, he designed glassware – huge goblets, short-stemmed goblets, simple chalices – to enhance his cocktails. Every day, he transported blocks of ice from the city cooler using a three-wheeled motorcycle with a platform attached. “They used electric saws to cut the ice,” Maurizio explains. “If you came in the morning for a coffee, the place looked like a carpentry shop.”
Mirko’s efforts paid off. Today, Bar Basso has a citywide reputation and a list of over 500 cocktails. Purist that I am, I stick to the Americano. It arrives in a tall stemmed glass, garnished with half an orange slice, and is as bitter and invigorating as I imagine it was nearly a century ago.
The spirited tour of Florence
Negronis are as crispy as Americanos, but they’ll get you drunker faster. For that, we can thank a Florence-based count (or so-called count) named Camillo Negroni. It was 1919, the First World War had just ended, the Spanish flu was raging and the count – according to legend – needed an acidic drink. So, in a bar in Florence, he asked for a dash of gin in his Milano-Torino.
Until relatively recently, Negroni’s flagship in Florence was Caffè Giacosa, founded in 1815. After Giacosa closed in 2017, that title passed to Caffè Lietta, which opened in 2019 with part of the Giacosa staff.
Caffè Lietta’s bartender, Martina del Sordo, worked for another Florentine institution, Rivoire. With her tattoos and bright red lips, she doesn’t look like a traditional Florentine bartender. But after many years at Rivoire and three more now at Lietta, she knows how to strike the perfect balance between vermouth, Campari and gin – and she would never trade the classic garnish of orange slices for this novel abomination. generation, a strip of orange peel. Nevertheless, she is attentive to the exquisite sensitivity of the cocktail. “You will never have the same Negroni twice,” says Martina. “It all depends on the bartender’s hand.”
With that, Fabiano Buffolino would agree. Co-owner and visionary of Florence’s cult cocktail bar Manifattura, Fabiano has created a drinks menu that couldn’t be more modern, but still manages to pay homage to Italy’s fiery past. In fact, he and his team – dressed in classic white bartender coats – do extensive research, reviving old spirits and looking for well-made versions of new local spirits. “It’s a bar where we talk about Italianness, which means that we only serve Italian bottles,” explains Fabiano.
These self-imposed limits have opened up a whole new world of possibilities. They led him, for example, to seek out special spirits – like a juniper and bergamot liqueur he found in Calabria – that clearly express the terroir that produces them. “We are looking for that point between tradition and innovation,” he says, and when it comes to aperitifs, “it’s not enough to serve Campari and sodas.”
Fabiano makes me a Negroni with peated gin and bitters so intense they make the Campari taste like a lollipop in comparison. “The Negroni offers endless combinations,” he says. “But if someone comes in and asks for the classic [version]We win.
The polarizing spritz of Venice
Fabiano’s words follow me to Venice. The city is home to its own classic cocktail, the Bellini, a luscious blend of peach nectar and pro secco. But the Aperol Spritz – a mixture of prosecco, soda water and bitter orange Aperol, topped with a green olive and a slice of orange – has become so popular with visitors who flock here that I see signs of backlash in bars in the city’s less touristy areas. Literally. (WE SERVE NO F***ING APEROL SPRITZES, reads one.)
For me, there is nothing wrong with the drink itself. It has its own long history: Spritz, in the form of white or sparkling wine and soda, were introduced to Venice during the First World War. Aperol, which was invented in nearby Padua just as the war was ending, probably seemed like an obvious addition. What seems to annoy Venetians is both the Instagram-fueled association between the drink and mass tourism itself, and the way Campari’s sustained advertising campaign has made it difficult for independent producers to win. ground. (Over the years, the company has acquired smaller alcohol producers, including Aperol and Cynar, a bitter artichoke liqueur also used in spritzes.)
“When I was young, we only drank prosecco as an aperitif,” says Stefano Munari, pointing to the dozens of tables around Piazza San Marco. “And Campari was just something old people drank. Now look around: it’s just orange, orange, orange.
Stefano is the gastronomy manager at Gran Caffè Quadri, one of the oldest cafes in the central square. It has existed under this name since 1775, but about ten years ago the establishment was taken over by the brothers Massimiliano and Raffaele Alajmo, respectively renowned chef and restaurateur, and its sumptuous interior was restored by designer Philippe Stark. As a consummate hospitality professional, Stefano takes a tolerant approach to Aperol Spritz — gives guests what they want, after all — and has been known to drink it himself occasionally, without an olive.
I normally avoid the cafes in Piazza San Marco, with their overpriced multilingual menus and cheesy bands throwing pop classics. But I’m also a consummate professional, so in the name of research, I grab a table at Gran Caffè Quadri and order an Aperol Spritz. His . . . good. Yet, sitting there, bathed in the glow of the setting sun reflecting off the Basilica and watching Italian families strolling their way to their own aperitivo, I am nonetheless captivated. When my glass is empty, I order another drink. Although this time I’m making it a Bellini.