It’s 6:30 on a warm spring evening in the town of Conegliano. I have an hour to kill before the van picks me up for dinner with the winemakers of Prosecco Superior, so I take a stroll around the old parts of town. True to script, the streets and cafés are busy: it’s la passegiata and the inhabitants of this small city in the Veneto are marking the transition from Saturday afternoon to Saturday night with a stroll, and perhaps an aperitif. The piazza, which is guarded by a pair of splendidly bosomed sphinxes, is surrounded by small bars, pouring drinks and offering little free snacks of crostini with each order. I pick one that opens into the cloister of what appears to be the city hall, replete with a statue and plaque commemorating Cavour. Before I go in to order, I encounter the most perfectly Italian scene. Three couples in their late 20s are out for a drink. The men stand off in a corner each with a light sweater draped over his shoulders. The ladies sit in a row on a bench, each are wearing make-up, wearing high heels, and smoking a cigarette in one hand while the other grips a baby stroller.
What they were all drinking, and by they I mean just about everyone in Conegliano at that time, was an Aperol Spritz. Spritz is a German dimunation of spritzer which is what Austrian rulers of the Veneto in the mid-19th century did to the local wine. The wine in Italy was stronger than the stuff they were used to on the north side of the Dolomite Alps, and the Tuetonic governors felt the need to water it down. While that may have been a silly thing to do to wine, it turned out to be an excellent thing to do to a fortified herbal drink like Aperol, whose flavour derives from orange peels, rhubarb (seriously) and whatever other botanicals go into its roughly 150 year old recipe, which, as it happens, was developed not far from Conegliano in Padua. So, while Garibaldi may have driven the Hapsburgs out induring the Risorgimento, his country men and women kept their taste for a bit of fizz in a drink.
Anyway, there are few better summertime drinks than the Aperol Spritz, and among its virtues is the simplicity of its recipe: three parts Aperol, two parts Prosecco, and one part sparkling water; garnish with a slice of orange. The only trouble with the recipe is, if you’re making it at home, you’re committed to a bottle of Prosecco. This is not the worst of fates, obviously, and it’s quickly remedied with the addition of a couple of thirsty friends.
I think it’s worth using decent Prosecco for the mix: look for the “Superiore” designation, or the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG on the label. The easiest to find is the one made by the Pinot Grigio dominants, Santa Margherita. Ideally, the sparkling wine would be “Extra Dry” which just a little sweeter than Brut, but Brut works to balance the herbal bitterness of Aperol as well. It’s pretty much summer in a glass, and we’d all do well to follow the example of the Italians and take an aperitif to ease into Saturday night.