Food /
Flavors of Italy

A Thousand Ways to Aperitivo with Spritz

“That is the ethos Italian living has been built on: countless variations on the same theme for countless, equally satisfying results”

On a recent trip to Venice, at aperitivo time, I sat down at a bar in the Dorsoduro district and asked for a Campari Spritz. The waiter looked at me hesitantly, then told me they didn’t have Campari. “We use Luxardo,” he explained. “It’s the Venetian way.” 

I obliged, and I am so glad I did. The Luxardo – the correct name is Luxardo Aperitivo – had a stronger aroma than Campari yet a slightly sweeter taste, which placed it nearer to the Aperol side of the aperitivo family. It was complex, and thicker on the palate. Mixed with prosecco and soda, it went down exceptionally well. I might even go as far as saying that Luxardo Spritz is my new favourite kind of aperitivo. 

The discovery sent me down a rabbit hole. As it turns out – or rather, as I found out the following night, this time at a drinking den in Castello – there’s in fact more than one “Venetian way” aperitivo. 

“You see, the original Venetian Spritz is made with Select Aperitivo,” the bartender at this new joint said. “Luxardo is good, but the tradition asks for Select. It’s been used for Spritzes since 1920, and created right here in Castello.”

I obliged, again. 

Select Spritz – which features bitter and sweet notes with hints of vanilla, cardamom and ginger root – is now my second favourite kind of aperitivo (and the Venetians are my very special kind of heroes, for bringing both drinks into our culture).

There’s more. A look at alternatives to Campari and Aperol reveals a universe of different bitters, vermouths and liqueurs you can jazz up your Spritz with. And you know what? Whichever one you go for, you’re going to end up with an excellent drink.

That, after all, is the ethos Italian living has been built on: countless variations on the same theme for countless, equally satisfying results (think of our entire cucina povera repertoire). Resourcefulness, without ever compromising on taste or aesthetics. There are a thousand ways to aperitivo, just like there are thousand ways to be Italian. 

Here’s a few that you might want to add to your drink cabinet.

 

Luxardo 

So what exactly is Luxardo? A low alcohol liquor, Luxardo derives from the infusion of various herbs, roots and citrus fruits. Crimson-red in colour, it’s aromatic, herbal and bittersweet, with notes of grapefruit and zesty orange (prosecco’s natural match). The brand itself has been around since 1821, and has remained in the same family – the Luxardo family, of course – ever since. In case you’re wondering: yes, they’re the same people behind Luxardo Maraschino (the aperitifs and after-dinner liqueur made from Maraschino cherries). 

The company was founded in Zara (today’s Zadar), a port city on the Dalmatian coast that is now part of Croatia, where Girolamo Luxardo, a Genovese businessman, and his wife, Maria Canevari, moved in 1817. Here, it was Maria who first created Maraschino liqueur, working off the “rosolio maraschino” that used to be produced in Dalmatian convents since mediaeval times. The spirit was a hit, and led Girolamo to open the distillery in 1821 (to much success and international recognition). Over the years, more fruit-based and herbal liqueurs were added to the Luxardo portfolio, including the Luxardo Aperitivo. 

Its popularity in Venice is easily explained: for part of its history, Zara was a vassal city of the Venetian Republic, and had really close ties with La Serenissima. 

Luxardo Spritz: 

60 ml of Luxardo Aperitivo

50 ml of Prosecco

A splash of soda to top it all off

A slice of orange to garnish

Pour Luxardo, prosecco, and soda water into a glass over ice. Garnish with a wedge of orange. Feel very sophisticated. 

Cynar 

A more recent addition to Italy’s spirits repertoire, midnight-hued Cynar (pronounced “chee-NAHR”) was first produced in the 1950s by Venetian businessman Angelo Dalle Molle, and it’s now owned by the Milanese Gruppo Campari. It is, essentially, a bitter apéritif of the amaro variety, made from 13 herbs and plants, predominant among which is the artichoke – though, contrary to expectations, it does not taste like the edible thistle (you will however see a lovely rendering of an artichoke on its label). 

Traditionally served on the rocks or with soda, orange juice, or tonic, or on its own as a post-dinner digestivo, Cynar tends to be a little sweeter, softer and more approachable than other amari, which is why many bartenders use it as their go-to liqueur to brighten up a cocktail.

Not that you’d know that: despite its versatility, all-around deliciousness, and the incredible series of commercials starring movie star Ernesto Calindri that propelled it to the fame back in the days, Cynar has somehow remained the unsung hero of Italy’s (and the world’s) drinking scene. 

I’d suggest we change that, and start reacquainting ourselves with this spirit now, perhaps by rewatching those commercials, because they’re brilliant. 

Cynar makes an excellent Spritz, too – and, as another gift to have come from Venice, it’s yet another proof that Veneto’s capital might just be Italy’s queen of aperitivo. 

Cynar Spritz

60 ml of Cynar

50 ml of Prosecco (white wine works too here)

A splash of soda to top it all off

A slice of lime

Pour Cynar, prosecco, and soda water into a glass over ice. Decorate with a slice of lime. Put on those old ads and pretend you’re in 1950s Italy. 

 

Select

Select Aperitivo is Venetian through and through. It was created in 1920 in Venice (or, to be precise, Castello, as my bartender proudly told me) by the distillery “Fratelli Pilla & Co.” just as the lagoon city was beginning to recover from the tumultuous years of World War I and people were, slowly, cautiously, relearning to enjoy life’s small pleasures – including that of a good drink with friends.

Select found itself in the middle of this social rebirth (some claim it was the first bitter to make its way into the Spritz) and was embraced by the locals not just as a simple aperitif, but as a symbol of normality, conviviality, and brighter times ahead. 

No wonder Venetians are still so fond of it today. 

Made by carefully blending 30 botanicals (including juniper berries) with rhubarb root, Select has a refined, complex formula that takes nine months to prepare, and still follows the original 20s recipe. 

As for the taste and aroma: The deep red liqueur features robust, grassy notes, with a hint of essential oils and citrus, as well as  touches of juniper distillate, resin, eucalyptus and menthol. Its taste rich and bitter, spiced and fresh – a multifaceted, surprising potion that’s even more surprising in a Spritz. 

Select Spritz:

60 ml of Select 

50 ml of Prosecco

A splash of soda to top it all off

One large green olive 

Pour Select, prosecco, and soda water into a glass over ice. Top with a large, green olive. Order cicchetti to go with it. 

Punt e Mes 

A golden orange vermouth, Punt e Mes is halfway between an aromatised wine and an amaro. Another gem from centuries past – it was supposedly first ordered in Turin on April 19, 1870 – it’s traditionally drunk as an aperitif, but works very well in cocktails, too (yes, you can order a Punt e Mes Spritz). 

The name means “point and a half” in Piedmontese, which references its flavour profile: one point of sweet, half a point of bitter. To christen it in such a way  was, as legend has it, the stockbroker that placed that first order: apparently, his shares at the stock market had gone up a point and a half (or “punt e mes”) that day and, to celebrate, he asked the bartender for  a glass of vermouth with a half-measure of bitter quina liqueur. To make himself understood, the man used a raised thumb on one hand to indicate the sweet (“punt”), then traced a straight horizontal with the other hand to mean a half measure of bitter (“mes”). A new Italian hand gesture was born, as  was the way to order Punt e Mes. 

Owned by the Carpano brand (now part of Fratelli Branca Distillerie, of Fernet Branca’s fame) and still a staple of Turin’s drinking scene – especially if you’re of my parents generation – Punt e Mes has an intense sweet-but-bitter flavour, with hints of  liquorice, sour cherries and menthol both on the nose and palate. It’s herbal, rich, and not for the faint hearted. Even better than in a Spritz, it works wonderfully as the vermouth of choice in a Negroni. 

Punt e Mes Spritz

60 ml of Punt e Mes

50 ml of Prosecco

A splash of soda to top it all off

Orange peel 

Pour Punt e Mes, prosecco, and soda water into a glass over ice. Stir gently and garnish with an orange peel. Forget about your own stock market shares.