Vive the People’s Drink
Spritz in Padova
In the middle of the piazza there are fruit and vegetable vendors with produce piled high. It’s late June. There are no students, the university has let out for the summer. It’s hot. Women in heels, however, are strolling along the stone paths walking their dogs. A few are chatting idly at tables with their friends over drinks. The octopus stand is just setting up for the evening. We are in Italy. We are in Padova.
Padova is like a snarky aunt 25 miles west of Venice. From the outside, you might think that she’s boring, provincial, but once you get to know her, you’ll be captured by her wit, her class, her style. Padova longs for people to fill her streets, her bars, her cafes and they do, without fail. Everyone here—men, women, children—can handle their drinks.
When I’m here, I always make time to go to Bar dei Osei in Piazza della Frutta in the center of town. The bar is small, with no inside seating. I’d say it’s an institution, but that’s too clinical: it’s a mainstay. It seems to have always existed. In their front window, you can see a large mortadella waiting to be sliced.
Here you drink spritz like you do in most northern Italian cities. In Padova, though, it’s the Spritz con Cynar that always gets my attention: bold, herbal, addicting. Cynar, is a bitter made primarily from artichokes, with a leafy green profile–different form the slightly sweeter Aperol. Bar dei Osei makes them the best, especially when combined with a Mortadella panino. I sit down and order one.
It’s rude to call Spritz a cocktail. It defies cocktails—it’s beyond them. Here, it’s the most democratic drink there is. A price hike could trigger protests. Spritz is the people’s drink, it’s for rich/poor, students/professionals. It has no class, no race, and no pretentiousness. Everyone drinks it, for better or worse, and that’s what makes it so great. If you’re not sure which bitter you want, at Bar dei Osei you can order the Spritz al Banco, which is a genius combination of Aperol, Campari, and Cynar with a splash of Prosecco. I drink one, two, three, and watch the ladies in heels with their dogs.
I’ve had spritz in grandpa bars, in fancy hotels, in cocktail bars. I’ve had them in London and in France, in the United States and in Australia. But none of them cut it. None of them have the expertise that comes with making them over and over, a thousand times a week, like the bartenders here do. Too watery, too much prosecco, too little bitters, too expensive or maybe they are just another cocktail on a list of 100. People here take this seriously: the price, the obligatory snacks (because you don’t drink without some kind of food), the atmosphere, conviviality, the democracy of it all. Politics aside, the spritz is an equalizer of people, of attitudes. The economy of the place depends on it.
The bartender brings over another round. “Six Euro” she says. We pull some coins out of our pockets. The line for octopus has grown, teenagers, families, friends have replaced the women in heels with dogs and the heat has finally subsided for the evening.