Photograph by Guillem Lopez, Alamy Stock Photo
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During Hapsburg rule of the Veneto region (northern Italy), Austrians, unaccustomed to the higher alcohol content of Italian wines, would often request a splash of water (spritzen, in German) be added to their glass. And so, the story goes, the spritz was born.
Photograph by Guillem Lopez, Alamy Stock Photo

Local Flavor: The Venetian Spritz

Chances are, if you’ve been to Venice you’ve had at least one. Likely a dozen or more.

I’m talking about the spritz, a wine-based cocktail that’s served in about every watering hole in Italy’s Veneto region.

Far less boozy than typical cocktails, spritzes are ridiculously refreshing. Typically served as aperitifs (before a meal), they also happen to be ideal anytime drinks. Which is why, even back home from a recent visit to Venice, my wife and I have been making them almost daily.

Of course, as with most good cocktails, this one’s origins are cloudy. Plus, it seems everyone has his or her own way of making them.

For help, I turned to Talia Baiocchi, co-author of Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail (complete with recipes). Among various creation myths, the most plausible puts the spritz’s birth in 19th-century northern Italy, during the Habsburg Empire’s domination of the area, she says. Locals took to adding a little water in their wine, probably to make it less alcoholic.

But it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century, when tipplers swapped still for sparkling water, that these drinks really became true spritzes, she says. A true spritz today is made by pairing wine and carbonated water (or simply a sparkling wine, such as Prosecco) with a bitter liqueur of some kind—often an aperitivo such as Campari or Aperol—and serving the mixture over cubed or crushed ice.

In a country where neighboring towns engage in fierce and proud rivalries—especially when it comes to local traditions and soccer teams—the favored spritz recipe depends on where you are. Indeed, folks in Italy’s Trentino Alto Adige region tend to have their own iteration, called the Hugo Spritz. Here, instead of a bitter component, the cocktail is made with a sweet elderflower cordial.

Down in Brescia, the preferred bitter is Cappelletti. And while the Milanese are partial to hometown hooch Campari, Venetians like their spritzes made with Select, a sweeter aperitivo born on the lagoon islands of Murano.

All of which means, Baiocchi says, that there really is no such thing as the perfect spritz. “To me, what makes the drink so special is the improvisational nature of it,” she says. “It’s a drink that’s tossed together with a kind of rakish, devil-may-care attitude. Which is why I think the drink has become so iconic in Italy. The spritz is the perfect representation of Italian-ness.”

A few of the best spots in Venice to get your spritz on:

  • Local favorite All’Arco is a can’t-miss spritz destination. Conveniently located near Venice’s famous Rialto Market, All’Arco also serves up great cicchetti, the city’s version of tapas.
  • Grab a canalside seat and order up a refreshing spritz at Al Timon, a popular haunt in less touristy Cannaregio, the northernmost of the city’s six historic sestieri (districts).
  • Another hopping osteria in Cannaregio, Paradiso Perduto (Paradise Lost) features regular live jazz performances along with its winning spritzes.
  • If you prefer to take your spritz with a view, Osteria Bancogiro is a great option. Its ample outdoor terrace overlooks the city’s famed Rialto Bridge spanning the Grand Canal.
  • Regarded as the world’s oldest coffeehouse in continuous operation, Caffè Florian is a must-visit. Sit outside on Piazza San Marco to hear the orchestra and partake in some of the city’s best people-watching.

Paul Abercrombie is a freelance writer who specializes in travel and wine-and-spirits coverage. Connect with him on Twitter @paulabercrombie.