I've always loved the pre-dinner cocktail. It allows you time to toss off the day's many stresses--tight deadlines, stupid drivers, pretty much everything you hear on the news--and prepares you to enjoy the evening's meal. Well, at least it should. Here in the U.S. our pre-dinner drinks--martinis and blockbuster wines--often do quite the opposite. Their high alcohol can deaden our senses. And unless your pre-dinner cocktail is follwed by eating buttered cardboard, why would you want to do that?
Enter the aperitivo, the Italian version of France's apéritif, a class of drinks that could mean a simple glass of white wine or Champagne, but that generally refers to herbal concoctions, wines or neutral spirits infused with carminatives like anise or ginger and/or medicinals like quinine--think Lillet, Dubonnet, Pernod or Campari. They are also said to stimulate the appetite and get your digestive system ready for some serious eating (and who here isn't a serious eater). You can drink them neat or over ice, or turn them into a lighter-style cocktail like the Spritz.
The Spritz was born in Venice when it was part of the Austrian Empire, the Italian answer to the white wine spritzer with a bit more personality. Where the spritzer was simply white wine diluted with some soda water, the Spritz added the complexity of an amaro (literally "bitter," amaro refers to a neutral spirit or wine infused with spices, herbs and fruit cut with sugar syrup, generally drunk after a meal as a digestivo). The Spritz is drunk all over Italy these days, though it's still got a hold on the folks in the Veneto, and can be made with Campari, Cynar, something called San Bitter, Select or, my favorite, Aperol.
Developed in Padova in 1919 by the Barbieri brothers, Aperol is a bitter-orange based top-secret blend of botanicals that also includes gentian root and rhubarb. It's little less astringent than the artichoke-based Cynar or the rhubarb-based Campari, with just a hint of orangey sweetness. I like to think of it as an entry-level amaro, one that won't make you feel like your grandma just made you drink pureed broccoli rabe. It's also only 11 percent alcohol, which means you can drink a few and still keep your head up at the table when dinner doesn't start until 9.
Some restaurants have gotten fancy with it since its U.S. debut in 2007, mixing it into drinks with gin and lemon juice like at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles and in the "Intro to Aperol" at the Pegu Club in New York, or Lillet, gin, Prosecco and lemon like in the "Pearl" at San Francisco's Bourbon and Branch. I think you could also substitue it for Campari to make a Negroni with training wheels. But I still prefer it in a simple Spritz, which often now includes a splash of Prosecco, a group of friends and dinner on the grill for the longer, lazier days of summer ahead.
2 oz. Prosecco - Try the Cima da Conegliano ($15.99), the Drusian Extra Dry ($14.99) or the ever-impressive 2009 Silvano Follador Valdobbiadene Brut ($19.99)
1 1/2 oz Aperol
A splash soda water or seltzer