Italian wines and spirits
How to drink like a Venetian: A guide to aperitivo
Cicchetti: Venice's answer to Spanish Tapas, are small bar snacks made up of simple combinations of land and sea. Sometimes set atop bread, sometimes not, but always served alongside an ombra, a small glass of house wine. This is aperitivo culture in Venice. Locals peel themselves away from the major piazzas, escaping the throngs of tourists shuffling along the narrow streets constantly stopping to photograph yet another passing gondola, and take up residence for a short while at a local Bacari, (a bar serving cicchetti) where they lounge, pontificate, eat, and argue over a drink and a bite. Milan is famous for its aperitivo, as is Paris for its Apéro, but there is a certain sophistication and allure to Venetian aperitivo, maybe it's because one has to seek out secret Bacari's, but more likely it's the feeling of having not much else to do late in the afternoon sun, but drink and eat amongst to countless pastel backdrops of Venice.
In a tucked away corner of the industrial part of Montreal's Mile-Ex neighbourhood is a Bacari of sorts taking its name from the very morsels from which it is inspired. Cicchetti is painted a soft shade of terracotta-orange that recalls the colours found lining the canals of Venice, and features a long curving bar running the length of the room and leading the eye to the cake-stand full with the day's offered bites. You won't pass Cicchetti walking down the street, you won't catch a glimpse of its sign as you drive down Parc Ave because there isn't a sign, just like the best Bacari in Venice, to find it you have to already know where it is.
I visited the crew at Cicchetti to talk about bringing Venice to Montreal, and to learn how to drink like a Venetian. With that most important question in mind, I looked to Cicchetti's wine director Camille Bourgault for guidance. Don't expect to find a lot of funky and wild natural wines on Camille's list, it's not her thing. Do expect to find over 30 references (many by the glass) of biodynamic and organically farmed wines made in a more classic style, plus a bunch of other great things not from Italy. But to drink like an Italian, Camille's suggestion: drink Italian wines. So I did.
Rosso Viola, Vignetto Saetti
Winemaker Luciano Saetti makes an unusual Lambrusco in Emilia-Romagna, unusual because it's made closer to the style of a Crémant than the way generic sparkling-fruit-punch Lambrusco usually is made. No sulphur has been used in the winemaking process since 2007, a second fermentation occurs in the bottle, rare for Lambrusco, and all the harvesting is done by hand. This Lambrusco is dry with fine bubbles and tastes of violets and red-fruit. I love this wine because these sultry, floral, red bubbles are a refined yet unconventional twist on the glass of bubbly for apéro.
Bianco, Villa Job
An easy drinking white from Venice's home turf. The fruit and structure of a sauvignon blanc and ribolla dominant wine is carefully balanced with the bright linear acidity of pinot grigio, these are northern Italy's star grapes and Villa Job vinifies them with great skill. This is a staple wine on Cicchetti's list, it's fresh and simple and is always sure to please.
Amphora, Castello di Lispidia
Orange wine may be the all the rage these days but so often the wine tastes more like a science experiment than a masterful transformation of fruit to wine. Not true, however, of Castello di Lispidia. Winemaker Alessandro Sgaravatti follows the “Do-Nothing” approach to farming as set-out by Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka. This philosophy positions the farmer as a sort of mid-wife, allowing the garden to develop as nature intended with the farmer only assisting the crops in the essential care they require: no intervention, no forced training. Sgaravatti makes his wines near Friuli, the orange wine motherland of Northern Italy and with a close working relationship to one of Friuli's greatest winemakers: Josko Gravner. The grapes ferment in maceration for 6 months giving a rich orange colour to the wine with complexity and elegance. If you want to know what orange wine is meant to taste like, this is the benchmark.
Skietto is described by Mathieu Delisle, one of the owners of Cicchetti, as one of the best wines he has ever had. A natural wine being produced in Puglia is a fairly new thing. The heel of Italy's boot has always been a workhorse agricultural region, mostly growing and selling grapes to winemakers in the north. Recently, a handful of producers have started making their own wine and working in natural and biodynamic ways. Pantun is one such producer working with a classic grape of the region: Primitivo (a close relative to Zinfandel) known for producing rich, lush, high alcohol wines with a fruit-forward palate. Pantun's expression of the grape is totally different, with a balancing acidity to temper the richness of the winemaking giving an easy drinkability, plus the spontaneous fermentation and ageing in cement lend a quality of freshly harvested grapes on the nose, rather than jammy fruit. A fresh and balanced red from a region to discover.
Birra Baladin, Super Bitter
Maybe wine isn't your thing. That's ok. Drinking beer for aperitivo is nearly as Venetian as the canals themselves, especially in the warmer summer months. Farmer, brewer, and local legend Teo Musso has been making beer in his home town of Piozzo, in Piedmont in a very special way. Historically the region is best known for producing Barolo, one of Italy's most prized wines, but Teo Musso sees the region differently. With a strong attachment to his home village, Musso believes that terroir need not only apply to wine and so with Birra Baladin Musso has been growing grains and hops, and sourcing water from Italy to make organically farmed, 100% Italian beer, they've even reshaped the town of Piozzo around his pursuit. Super Bitter, leans toward the style of and American bitter, using Amarillo hops. It tastes bitter like its name, but I also pick up some caramel notes, and a faint bit of dried fruit. Put down the Moretti, if you want to drink Italian beer, this is it.
Why not have a Spritz? The essential aperitivo cocktail originates in Venice. It can be made with either Campari or Aperol, with still white wine (Garganega, or Pinot Bianco) or with sparkling Prossecco, and may or may not be topped with soda. The combinations maybe vary, but in Venice, one thing always remains constant: the spritz is garnished with an olive. Don't knock it 'til you try it because, honestly, it's delicious. The bitter-sweet character of Aperol marries the briny salinity of the olive and then the acidity of the olive equally matches the acidity of the wine. Perhaps a seemingly odd addition to the drink, but it's clearly the work of a mad genius. Nothing could be more Venetian than the cocktail invented just for aperitivo, the name alone leaves you refreshed. At Cicchetti the Spritz is king, it's served the Venetian way, and it's damn good. Salute.
Photos by Celia Spenard-Ko