Strolling through cobbled streets in Rome and Naples this summer, I spotted bright red glasses on café tables. The color wasn’t a deep Chianti red, but more like the orange hue of a nine-o-clock sunset. I soon learned this refreshing aperitif, Aperol Spritz, is made with Prosecco, soda, and Aperol bitters. Recently at a restaurant near home, I was reminded of both my vacation and the popularity of aperitifs, as patrons at the table next to me ordered several rounds of Aperol Spritz.
An aperitif is drunk before a meal to stimulate the appetite (just as the digestif is had after a meal to aid digestion). Aperitifs are made either from fortified wine or from bitters (alcohol steeped with bitter orange peels, anise herb and spices). The intense flavor of bitters is tempered with Prosecco and soda. Aperitifs are usually served with mixed nuts, olives, chips, or tapas.
Alcoholic and nonalcoholic aperitifs exist in many cultures: In my travels, I have enjoyed English Pimm’s and Greek ouzo, and I also grew up with two non-alcoholic Indian versions made with cumin, jaljeera and jeera vellum. Jeera vellum is served before the spiced cardamom-scented meat biryani; like the early aperitifs, its original role is medicinal. (Some earlier aperitifs, such as vermouth, started out as a way to disguise the taste of quinine.) With clever marketing, they started popping up in local bars and high-end restaurants.
My two Aperol bottles, brought back from vacation, lasted for several parties this summer. I served the Spritz with a caramelized onion cream cheese dip and vegetables as well as an eggplant pate with toasted bread – creamy foods that absorb the alcohol! I made the watermelon spritz for those who wanted a non-alcoholic aperitif.
Prosecco (4 parts): Soda (1 part): Aperol (1 part).
Mix and serve.
Boiling water (5 cups) : Cumin seeds (2 ½ tbsp).
Steep for 7 minutes. Serve warm.
Strained juice of half a watermelon: Soda (½ cup) : Fresh lime juice (2 tbsp) : Sugar (1 tbsp) : Ice (1 cup). Mix and serve.