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As one of Europe’s most romantic, cosmopolitan, and irresistibly picturesque gastronomy hubs, Venice’s love affair with the good drink stretches back centuries. And while local taste runs the gamut from bubbly, easy-drinking spritzers to complex mixology-fueled creations and stiff, after dinner belly-warmers, the sprawling seaside metropolis has long been synonymous with the aperitivo, Italy’s signature late afternoon sipper.
"Venice is where aperitivo culture was born,” says Rudi Carraro, a native Venetian who currently serves as the Global Brand Ambassador for Italian liqueur purveyor Amaro Montenegro. “Aperitivo, which comes from the Latin word aperire or 'to open,' is a drinking tradition that takes place before the meal. An opportunity to open the stomach, it’s often served with cicchetti, also known as small plates.”
Among its many beloved brands, Carraro's portfolio at Amaro Montenegro includes Select Aperitivo, a richly herbaceous, ruby-hued, and bittersweet Venitian liqueur usually dosed with a hit of fizzy water and presented in the form of an ultra-refreshing Spritz cocktail. Interestingly enough, this effervescent concoction, now a ubiquitous warm weather go-to throughout the world, also has roots in the Floating City.
“In the 1800s, Venice was ruled by the Habsburg Empire and legend has it that the soldiers of the Empire began spraying—from the German term spritzen—the local white wine with sparkling water to make it less alcoholic. Thus, the very first spritz recipe was born,” Carraro explains, further establishing his home town’s cocktail cred. “Here in Venice, the Select Spritz, with its robust and savory profile, is the drink of choice during aperitivo hour. It's also garnished with a large green olive, making it the perfect pairing with classic cicchetti."
Whether you’re looking to take in the captivating sunset over a few zesty Spritzes or cruising the canals in search of a buzzy late night hangout complete with top shelf spirits, each of these expert-recommended Venetian drinking dens is poised to meet all your cocktail-loving needs.
"Il Mercante is known for its unique and inimitable cocktails,” says Carraro of this world renowned industry hotspot. “With its impressive menu and energetic nighttime vibe, it's a can't miss experience." Located at the base of the Ponte dei Frari bridge, the cozy bi-level space has proved itself as a stylish date night staple for visitors and Venetians alike. The atmosphere is lively yet intimate, with a snug velvet-lined seating, bistro tables, and an elegant mezzanine overlooking the small bar where serious mixologists shake up some of the city’s most daringly creative cocktails. The spirits list, a blend of European staple whiskies and liqueurs alongside curious gems like rare aged rums and mezcals, is not to be overlooked.
This casual, spirited Cannaregio outpost embodies Venice’s seafaring culture in both form and function, peddling spritzes, seafood-focused cicchetti, and other fisherman-worthy fare out of an age-old interior awash in unfinished dark wood, exposed brick, and industrial-style lamps hanging from the rafters. The theme extends outside, where visitors can opt to savor their leisurely aperitivo atop the bar’s modest docked boat gently as it gently bobs on the Ormesini Canal.
Gio's Terrace at The St. Regis
Pull up a rattan chair and soak up the scenery with a Spritz in hand at this recently-revamped Grand Canal escape, proudly endowed with what Carraro dubs “some of the most iconic views in Venice.” The upmarket hotel bar pairs fresh, classic antipasti and entrees with inventive cocktails, fine wines, and several different mouthwatering takes on the standard afternoon sparkler. “The Select Spritz is known as the 'Red Spritz' on the menu, where all spritzes are listed by color," notes Carraro.
"Located near the Rialto bridge, Amo's unparalleled location in Venice is perfect for enjoying a true aperitivo experience," proclaims Carraro. Stashed inside the airy internal courtyard of an ornate, marble-clad 16th-century palace, this polished contemporary space earned a 2020 Michelin Plate nod for its bill of refined Mediterrainan comforts like crispy, oven-baked pizza with creamy burrata and anchovies, homemade ravioli stuffed with tender rabbit and wild mushrooms, and hand-chopped beef tartare “tiramisu” drenched in an unctuous cream sauce and finished with black truffles. To drink, celebrated local barman Lucas Kelm oversees a tasty lineup of Italian wines, laid-back spritzes, and keenly-balanced original and stalwart cocktails including a particularly persuasive martinez set ablaze with sweet Italian vermouth.
Sure, it’s overly touristy and undoubtedly the most obvious choice of the lot, but no booze connoisseur should leave Venice without at least a brief stop into this famed 1930s-era Grand Canal barroom. Cloaked in glossy mahogany and sporting a cavernous, low-strung ceiling that evokes a fittingly nautical aesthetic, this handsome National Landmark is widely regarded as the birthplace of the Bellini cocktail and white-jacketed barmen continue to delight patrons with that cloud-like combination of Prosecco and white peach puree to this day. Start with one of these irresistibly sweet, fluffy quaffs before moving onto more potent throwbacks like a soulful Negroni or a dapper Brandy Alexander.
According to Carraro, this quaint Grand Canal hideaway “serves beautifully-done drinks that complement their classic Italian menu." The simple, elegant dining room is perpetually filled with guests washing down plates of lemony sauteed calamari with fruit-laden Spritzes while admiring the 18th century frescoes that adorn the rustic walls. On warmer days, the front canal-facing wall opens wide onto the cobblestone street and transforms the charming venue into a sundrenched people-watching mecca.
From the Murano glass chandeliers, striking etched mirrors, and original gilded-framed paintings to the long list of high-end specialty martinis, few area bars come close to matching this luxe Grand Canal institution’s level of unbridled opulence. The hotel’s seasoned, pristinely-tuxedoed waitstaff has won over countless celebrities, wealthy summering Italians, and visiting dignitaries over the decades with a steady supply of affable wit, satisfying small plates, and a host of classic and specialty tipples. And while old Hemmingway’s days of holding court at the stately marble bar might have passed, fortunately little else appears to have changed.
Boasting handwritten chalkboard menus, a breezy sidewalk seating, and crowded displays of tasty cicchetti, Carraro calls this old-school central city haunt “a local favorite” and "the perfect spot for a quick aperitivo.” Historic photos hang above the bar, setting a welcoming neighborhood tone that lays the foundation for homey snacks like toast laden with velvety prosciutto or smothered in delectably salty tinned fish and the requisite, life-affirming stream of Select Spritzes. Fill up your plate with goodies and head to the patio for a true taste of Italian aperitivo culture.