Italy's low-alcohol drink is plentiful in Austin
I'll never forget the feeling of drinking an Aperol spritz on the rooftop of the Plaza Hotel Lucchesi.
The Italian hotel where my new husband and I were staying on the final leg of our whirlwind European honeymoon was along the River Arno, all of Florence spread out magnificently below. Soaking in those views, Aperol Spritz in hand — in between a wine tour through Tuscany and a dinner of pasta and more wine — I felt alive in a way I never had before. I had found "la dolce vita" the Italians seek out daily.
Through the proliferation of the spritz, it is possible to feel at least some of that magic again, nearly two years later and halfway around the world.
There is no shortage of Austin bars and restaurants carrying the low-alcohol, wine-topped Italian cocktail. The spritz has caught on here, just as it has for decades in Italy, because of what it is: a fun, fizzy way to kick off your evening, opening up your palate without getting you drunk.
A spritz is, simply, a cocktail made up of sparkling wine, a bitter liqueur, soda water and maybe some citrus, too. But if you're thinking about a spritz these days, chances are it's one in particular — the Aperol spritz. Aperol is the red-orange Italian liqueur that lends that crucial bitter element to the spritz and, at 11 percent ABV, has less alcohol than other common liqueurs such as Campari or Cynar. (It also has a little more sweetness than those do.)
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At Italian-focused local spots such as Italic, the Aperol spritz is often prominent on happy hour menus, which is fitting given the spritz's status as a before-dinner drink in the country where versions came along as early as the 19th century. (Aperol launched in 1919; a smart marketing campaign in the 1990s made it ubiquitous.) The cocktail is enjoyed during "aperitivo," or Italy's easy-drinking version of happy hour.
Bubbly and bitter, the spritz tends to please the palate, even for those who might not be used to Aperol's distinctive flavor profile, courtesy of a mixture of herbal ingredients including gentian, rhubarb and cinchona. Italic bartender Mia Robison said it's one of two top-ordered drinks at the downtown restaurant, and she gets why.
"I didn't used to always like Aperol, the bitterness of it. I had to work my way up to it by adding (more soda) when I would make the spritz for myself, but now I crave them, especially in the hot weather," she said.
Austin certainly has a lot of that ahead of us this summer. And, for Italic at least, the heat means a whole lot of spritzes.
"We go through probably a bottle of Aperol a day," she said. "I'm the day bartender here, and I make anywhere from 10 to 20. As you can imagine, our night shift makes even more."
Local bars and restaurants with the spritzes we seek might not be on a rooftop like Lucchesi's — which, funnily enough, houses an American-themed bar — but their patios are sure to give us an Austin sort of twist on la dolce vita. Here's where to go for a good spritz, with Aperol or otherwise. Am I missing your favorite? Email me and I'll add it to the list.
Bar Peached, 1315 W. Sixth St.
Brunch is another time you might want to take it easy with a low-alcohol drink. To that end, the Peached Tortilla's bar-focused sibling restaurant now offers a spritz featuring Aperol infused with strawberry during its newly launched Sunday brunch. (Though not on the menu during other mealtimes, you can order it then as well.) The addition of the strawberry, you could say, brings new meaning to the word "bittersweet."
Clark's Oyster Bar, 1200 W. Sixth St.
Called "spritzers" at the chic seafood spot, the trio of mostly low-ABV cocktails contain not one lick of Aperol, and that's more than OK because they show off what other aperitifs and liqueurs can bring to the table. The Trilogy, for instance, is an all-Italian symphony of Campari, Amaro Montenegro and Solerno (a blood orange liqueur), along with lime and sparkling wine. These all harmonize on your palate, which will tell you you're drinking what amounts to boozy grapefruit juice.
Gelateria Gemelli, 1009 E. Sixth St.
The founder of this bright gelato shop in East Austin learned how to make the frozen dessert while traveling around Italy, where he discovered "the best way to consume gelato was to wash it down with a Negroni on the rocks or an amaro straight up," according to Gemelli. No doubt an Aperol spritz would also be a natural pairing, and you can find out for yourself here because it's on the menu and served in a stemless wine glass.
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Gusto Italian Kitchen + Wine Bar, 4800 Burnet Road
Aperitivo is all about easing into the big meal ahead with low-alcohol cocktails, and not just the spritz. At this Rosedale restaurant, the Venetian spritz is as true to form as it gets, with Aperol, prosecco and soda. You also can try a handful of other light starter drinks, such as the Birra Americano featuring Campari, sweet vermouth and Birra Peroni, before ordering a more high-octane Italian treat like the Negroni.
Italic, 123 W. Sixth St.
Happy hour here starts early, at 2:30 p.m., and runs until 6:30 to give ample time to down the Aperol spritz for only $5. The airy Italic makes a mostly traditional version, with the requisite liqueur and prosecco, although the addition of San Pellegrino Blood Orange is a bright, effervescent touch.
Juliet Italian Kitchen, 1500 Barton Springs Road
Cars will whiz by the covered, all-white patio of the casual South Austin restaurant, but take enough sips of the Aperol Spritz — made, in a decidedly American twist, with sparkling rosé instead of prosecco — and you might forget Juliet's location near a significant thoroughfare. Served in a red wine glass, the spritz is also garnished with mint leaves and a couple of blueberries. For a more traditional take, head to Juliet's extended Aperol spritz happy hour on Wednesday evenings.
Kitty Cohen's, 2211 Webberville Road
There is virtually nothing Italian about Kitty Cohen's, a retro-inspired bar that draws its aesthetic from Palm Beach clubs of the 1970s. Nonetheless, it does have spritzers. After all, little else is more '70s appropriate than downing wine spritzers (including a particularly easy sipper with lemon, ginger and rosé) while dipping your toes in the wading pool at the center of Kitty Cohen's palm tree-accented patio.
Uncle Nicky's Italian Specialties, 4222 Duval St.
Expect a little bit of every great Italian thing at the casual Hyde Park cafe, from gelato to coffee to prosciutto-topped toast, called pane tostato. So, of course, there are three spritzes on the streamlined menu, including the Aperol spritz served in a specially branded Campari glass. (The Campari Group owns Aperol.) Gin takes center stage in the other two. Although it's a higher ABV than spritzes typically call for, the herbaceous spirit is a perfect match for the fizzy, fruity riffs.