On Sunday, in the back room of the Wythe Hotel, the Food Book Fair—a celebration of food, writing about it, and food culture—held a special event. The authors of two gorgeous food books were on hand, whose disparate subjects are as delicious as they are attractive: pizza, and the classic Northern Italian apératif, the spritz.
The first book, The New York Pizza Project, is part deep-dive documentation, part art project, fueled by five Native New Yorkers’ obsession with the pizza slice, and New York pizza culture in general. Over years, they visited and photographed over a hundred slice shops across boroughs, capturing the pies and the home-grown characters who make them; the people who deliver comfort in the form of delicious, unchanging recipes to a city that is undergoing rapid, unsettling transformation.
But while a slice shop here is as pervasive as the subway, or our green-wire garbage cans, the spritz—while we might grasp what it is basically—is less so. So Brooklyn residents Talia Baiocchi (Editor-in-Chief of Punch) and Leslie Pariseau (former deputy editor of Punch and writer) have done significant work to change this with their shockingly good-looking book, Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitif Cocktail, with Recipes.
At the event on Sunday, Baiocchi talked with me about her love of the aperitif, writing the book, and peppered me with history surrounding the birth of the golden-hour cocktail that, today, is Italy’s most popular drink—at base, anything that is “bitter, bubbly, and low in alcohol.”
Before we started, though, Baiocchi—the genuine sprtiz lover she is—made sure we had two of our own to sip on. The move touched on why Baiocchi feels passionately about spritzes in the first place. The one we drank, the Venetian, was just 11 percent alcohol. “That is what I love abut it mostly—I can drink like five of these drinks and feel totally normal,” says Baiocchi. “And then I can go out and have a bottle of wine, so.”
While the Pizza Project boys had just explained their favorite beverage pairing with a slice was beer, Baiocchi followed up by saying, actually, the best thing to drink with pizza is a spritz. She does it all the time. Perhaps, I was beginning to think, there is no time not to drink one.
Baiocchi first discovered the spritz in earnest in the mid-aughts, during many visits to Italy (her family is from Lucca). Today, Americans—and most people—probably assume the spritz is steeped in centuries of Italian history. But Baiocchi told me this is both true and not true. On one hand, the concept of watering down wine in Northern Italy began with the 19th Century Hapsburg Domination of its northern region. Austrian soldiers would take wine and lighten it up to taste. It wasn’t until sparkling water came around in the 1910s that the spritz became bubbly, and not until the 20s and 30s that it became the bitter spirit-based drink we’re familiar with now.
And beyond that, it wasn’t until Aperol printed a recipe for the Aperol spritz on the back of their bottle that the Aperol Spritz, and the spritz in general, took over the entire country to the extent that it has today. The Italian spritz is a spirit-based cultural phenomenon that is less than two decades old.
Italian history aside, the word Sprtiz, or “spritzer,” in America, has less glamorous roots. Baiocchi points out a lot of us would associate that word with big perms, and tanned women on diets in the 1980s, downing them with abandon at social gatherings. So the thorough historians and writers that she and Pariseau are, Baiocchi and Pariseau went to pains to include both the high and low aesthetics of the spritz’s roots in their book. They worked closely with designer Matthew Allen (previously creative director at Surfer Magazine) to a hit a sweet spot that captured both the early 1900s Italian glamor of it, and 1980s, boxed-wine America.
“We said, dude, we wanna create 1920s and 30s Italian booze ads that were so prevalent in design, and 1980s California, and the white wine spritzer,” Baocchi tells me, “and we wanna mash those two things up. He totally got it, he killed it,” said Baiocchi, as we gingerly sipped our own Venetian Spritzes, or, as it is described in the book, “The spritz that launched a thousand spritzes,” made of bitter liqueur, prosecco, and soda water. A lip-smacking cherry was also plunked into ours.
But more than precise recipes, of which Spritz has many—modern recipes created by bar tenders here, classic recipes, and “cousins” of the aperitif, which riff on the drink using small amounts of real spirits—the spritz is really more of an approach to drinking, says Baiocchi, “a cultural perspective on the Aperitif, a way of drinking before dinner.” The term I would use is: nonchalant drinking.
But, I wondered, she must have a favorite recipe? “Probably in between the classic Venetian spritz,” which we, at that point, had mostly finished, “and also the Negroni Sbagliato, which is Campari, sweet vermouth and prosecco. That’s it. It’s quite delicious.”
Finally I asked if she really meant it when she said, during her public announcement, that she preferred to drink a spritz with a slice over anything else. “I really do, I really do,” she confirmed. In that case, what’s the best Pizza to pair with her spritz, I wondered. Best Pizza, she told me, around the corner from where she lives, so it’s both her most frequent and favorite slice.
I pictured a gorgeous summer, spread out before me, a dream-like blend of slices and various, cold spritzes, guzzled and gobbled in abundance, and nonchalantly.
“I think everyone should be eating slices and drinking spritzes,” I said.
“One hundred percent,” said Baiocchi. “Yeah—a spritz and a slice.”
Reprinted with permission from Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, with Recipes by Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau, copyright © 2016. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.”
Photography credit: Dylan + Jeni © 2016