Despite the record-breaking summer heat wave and the less than glamorous reality of the crowds packing into Positano, lugging their overpacked suitcases along winding cobblestone alleyways, Italy remains one of the top worldwide tourist destinations.
And it’s very likely that when in Italy — whether Milan, Rome, Florence, or the Amalfi Coast — you can’t escape the popularity, and ubiquity, of the Aperol Spritz. It’s affordable, low in alcohol, bubbly, bittersweet, and undeniably refreshing. Whether consumed in a posh hotel rooftop bar or at an al fresco table during apertivo’s golden hour, the drink’s bright orange hue and stemmed glass filled with ice acts as a spirited souvenir. Each sip serves as a memory of la dolce vita, like that souvenir postcard taped to your refrigerator door.
And when travelers are back in their own hometowns, it’s very likely that they’re still in the habit of ordering and making Aperol Spritzes to conjure the transportive feeling that drink symbolizes.
All of this has me wondering: In a vacation destination like Italy — a country rich with food and drinking culture — what are the drinks locals turn to at home or while on vacation to evoke their own memories of travel when they want to feel beyond Italy? Or does such a phenomenon exist for Italians who can travel within their own vibrant and varied country for a more local sense of being transported beyond their own home base?
To find out, I reached out to a number of Italians — not just those in the bar and spirits industry, either, but also writers, designers, and expats who now call the country home. It was no surprise that many answers were often passionate, opinionated, and at times conflicted.
‘The Sardinia Effect’
Within Italy’s 20 diverse regions, each with their own distinctive food specialities and local drinking cultures, there are some drinks even native Italians might only experience within a specific area that can prove to be equally as compelling as memories of a beachside Daiquiri in the Caribbean. One example comes from Matteo Meletti, the fifth-generation export manager for his family business, Ditta Silvio Meletti, located in Ascoli Piceno in the Marche region of central Italy bordering the Adriatic coast. Meletti’s favorite getaway drink, the Bombardino, is particularly tied to the winter season. It’s served hot and made with brandy, coffee, zabaione (a creamy, sweet, eggnog-like confection made with egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine) that’s topped with fresh whipped cream. It’s popular among winter vacation destinations, like the Dolomites in Northern Italy, where Meletti warms up with the high-calorie drink on week-long ski trips with his friends. “The taste reminds me of the beauty of nature in winter and the majestic mountains,” he says. “It’s a tradition and it doesn’t taste the same anywhere else.”
The rugged landscape of Sardinia, the second largest Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea, possesses its own influential drinkways for Italians looking for a bit of escape within their own country. “In Rome we have something we call ‘the Sardina effect,'” says Leonardo Leuci, one of Italy’s best known bartenders and co-owner of The Jerry Thomas Speakeasy and Latta Fermenti e Miscele, describing the wave of Italians back from holiday in Sardinia with a craving for the island’s regional specialties — mirto (a bittersweet myrtle berry liqueur) and filu ‘e ferru (a brandy made from Sardinian grapes).
“You go for holiday and essentially try something and fall in love, and you don’t want to forget the beauty of these memories,” Leuci says. “So when you come back home you keep eating and drinking what you enjoyed on holiday.” He recalls Roman bars and restaurants he’s worked at being inundated with orders for mirto and filu ‘e ferru, only for the high consumption to suddenly drop off and then restart the following September.
With the abundance of options and beautiful settings in Italy, even the spark of memory inspired by a vacation in Greece can be fleeting. Author and food tour operator Elizabeth Minchilli divides her time between Rome and Umbria but says that the “whiff of a particularly hot summer breeze” will have her thinking about her two favorite drinks from Greece — Frappé Coffee and ouzo. But as someone obsessed with regionality in food and drink, she understands some experiences are special only because they occur in a specific place. “I never really crave them here in Italy because, frankly, they only taste good there,” Minchilli says. “Ouzo just doesn’t do it for me outside of that context, nor does a frappé made from instant coffee and canned milk. But in Greece? Pure bliss.”
Meanwhile, for some Italians, the nostalgia of savoring the memory of a specific vacation drink is simply misplaced sentimentality. “There’s no need for Italians to long for a drink from far away because food and drink is such a big part of our culture,” says Daniele Dalla Pola, the Milan-born co-owner of the tiki-inspired NU Lounge Bar in Bologna and the tropical cocktail bars Esotico and Kaona Room in Miami. He doesn’t deny that the best part of traveling is new experiences, but any spirited cravings are short-lived. “The first time I went to France I fell in love with pastis,” he recalls. “It was cool to drink in Saint-Tropez or Paris or while playing pétanque in Nice, but after a week back in Italy that disappears.”
American (Modern) Classics
Elisabetta Nonino — who, with her sisters Antonella and Cristina, represents the sixth generation of her family’s namesake distillery in Percoto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia — spends much of the year traveling around the world for business. When she’s in America she loves to seek out the regional food of wherever she is, but one thing that’s a constant, and makes her think of America, is a “very good” bacon cheeseburger and french fries accompanied by a Paper Plane, especially the one served at One Flew South, an upscale cocktail bar at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
“It’s always my best stop before going back to Italy. I really appreciate it,” Nonino says. She may be a bit biased of Sam Ross’s 2008 modern classic, as one of the drink’s four elemental components — along with bourbon, Aperol, and lemon juice — is Amaro Nonino Quintessentia. “The Paper Plane is just beautiful and perfectly balanced. I would never have thought an Italian spirit would work so well with bourbon,” says Nonino, who notes that it’s not as easy to make in Europe as Scotch and Cognac are more readily available than bourbon.
“The beauty of being able to travel is something that links me, as an Italian, to the drink and food culture of other countries. And I’m grateful for that,” she says. Nonino says that she likes to bring more culinary-minded souvenirs in her suitcase back home to Percoto, especially a good bottle of bourbon so she can stir up a batch of Paper Planes for her own family to keep those memories alive.
It’s another American classic cocktail that Katie Parla, the Rome-based author of “Food of the Italian Islands” dreams about when she’s longing for home. “The Sazerac is synonymous with New Orleans and whenever I’m there it immediately puts me in a buzzy good mood with its warming and sweet notes,” says Parla, who favors sipping one at The Carousel Bar & Lounge at the Hotel Monteleone and some of the city’s quirky, historic watering holes. Outside of her own home bar, recreating a properly made Sazerac in Rome has proved a challenge, but there’s hope. “The newly opened Jerry Thomas Bar Room in Trastevere mixes up an excellent one,” Parla says, “and it’s a short walk from my apartment.”
South American Spirits
Composed of cachaça, sugar, and lime, the Caipirinha is not only the national drink of Brazil, but one that holds a special place in the hearts of many Italians. For Verona bar owner (Archivo, Amaro) Raffaele Bellomi, an ice-cold Caipirinha with plenty of lime and a bit on the boozy side is his ideal “take me back to…” drink.
While he’s had plenty of Caipirinhas in Italy, none can match the memory of his first time in Rio sharing a few rounds of Caipirinhas with his girlfriend at a makeshift, side-of-the-road bar near Copacabana. “I can still smell the aroma of fresh limes,” Bellomi recalls. “Any time the humidity in Verona comes close to the levels of that Copacabana afternoon, I order myself a Caipirinha,” he says. “It’s never as good, but just the memory of it is enough for me.”
The Caipirinha and its vodka-based cousin the Caipiroska are also on the sense-memory radar of Marianna Fierro, an art director and food and beverage illustrator from Udine, Italy, now living in Los Angeles. “When I first started going out and partaking in drink and party culture, I noticed Caipirinhas and Caipiroskas were some of the most popular drinks, Fierro says. “Anything that came from a ‘vacation destination’ and felt and sounded summery was usually what people were the most attracted to.”
On the other coast of South America lies Peru, birthplace of that country’s own national drink, the Pisco Sour. Kieran Patten, an Irish born-and-bred, longtime resident of Brooklyn, is the proprietor of the recently opened bar The Irishman in Siena in Italy’s Tuscany region. His Pisco Sour memory didn’t take place in Peru, but the historic bar Boadas in Barcelona. “It blends the charm of Harry’s in Venice with the friendliness of The Horseshoe Bar in Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel,” Patten says, describing his Pisco Sour as “[a] thing of beauty. Perfectly balanced and crisp with a lingering acidity that pleases long after the drink is finished.”
The Spirit of the Caribbean
The Caribbean has long been a popular vacation destination for many Italians, and Victoria Cece is no exception. It was in Guadeloupe where the Italian food and beverage writer and podcast host based in Rome experienced her first Ti’ Punch, the spirit-forward drink made with rhum agricole, lime, and sugar that is considered the national drink of Martinique and Guadeloupe. It wasn’t served at a typical tropical bar but as a pre-dinner starter at a restaurant in Le Gosier.
Cece was immediately taken by the ritual of guests being invited by the server to make their own Ti Punch using the bottle of rhum agricole, glass of local cane sugar syrup, and a bowl of fresh-cut limes placed on the table. “It was in those moments I discovered how Ti’ Punch isn’t just a drink — it’s a form of hospitality, just like when the owner leaves a bottle of amaro on your table after a long, leisurely lunch or dinner in Italy,” she says. “It felt familiar and foreign at the same time and I continue to indulge in this glorious tradition of the Antilles,” says Cece who hopes to recreate the spirit of that Caribbean ritual alive in Italy.
When the Rome-based bar owner Leonardo Leuci travels for work it isn’t to be a tourist, but for research that leaves him open to gaining new experiences and further knowledge of his craft. Over the past decade, the country that has affected him the most and changed his point of view on the meaning of authenticity is Haiti, and its distilled sugar cane spirit Clarin.
“For me it’s about trying to catch a different kind of authenticity that’s almost impossible to find in 95 percent of spirits produced in the world,” says Leuci, who has visited many small, rural producers deep in the forests of Haiti. “The stills they use can be made from an old pot they happen to have lying around and there’s no electronic devices to control and to test the liquor,” he says. “They simply put their finger on the liquid and by licking it can tell you the alcohol level.”
In terms of availability, there are commercial Clarins available in Italy, but Leuci still longs for the small-batch bottlings that would be impossible to export. “Clarin is part of the country with more than a century of tradition. It’s just so unique,” Leuci says. “Every time I go there to visit, I leave knowing I’m going to miss this level of authenticity. This is the place that has touched me the most in the past 15–20 years.”
All Roads Lead Back to the Spritz
And yet, there’s no escaping the international appeal of the Aperol Spritz, even for Italians. “I don’t remember any country that gave me an impression that compares to what you get in Italy,” says Dalla Pola, who now lives in Miami. But despite his love and pride of his home country, Dalla Pola feels like Italians may be getting bored with the Aperol Spritz.
“Yes, Italians do drink Aperol Spritzes but that’s because many bartenders don’t push them to drink something else,” he says. “It’s easy to do because Italians are busy and don’t often want to explore new things. Always eat the same thing. Always drink the same thing.”
Despite Dalla Pola’s sentiment, which isn’t unpopular concerning the Aperol Spritz, which can run on the sweeter side, its bright orange, bittersweet wave of popularity continues to rise, and spark a bit of la dolce vita no matter where it’s enjoyed.
Yes, Italians are a proud bunch, who very well might be set in their ways. But there’s a reason so many people visit every year, and a big part of that is the food and drinking culture. Just because your country is a vacation destination for so many doesn’t mean that it can’t also be so for you. I think that contrarian nature, and the lack of desire to “escape” — whether literally or figuratively — ties into what it truly means to drink like an Italian.