Nestled among crossword puzzles and cheeky connect-the-dots illustrations on the menu at New York’s Nitecap is the phrase, “Because let’s face it, bubbles make everything feel better.” It serves as both a general mood and an unofficial mission statement for the Lower East Side bar’s co-owner Natasha David, whose devotion and dedication to the spritz informs much of her drink-making point of view.
“The spritz is a super-nostalgic drink for me,” says David. Her mother’s frequent request of waiters to “spritz up her white wine” used to embarrass her, but the stigma of the ’80s-era white wine spritzer evolved into a shared mother-daughter passion. “Nitecap was always going to celebrate the spritz,” says David, who sees the classic Italian template of three parts prosecco, two parts bitter liqueur and one part soda water as a jumping-off point for creative low-ABV variations that have become a hallmark of her style. “The first spritz we had on the menu was literally an ode to my mother. It was an orange wine spritz called Pinkies Out. That was my first attempt at trying to rid the white wine spritz of its bad reputation.”
At Nitecap, each of the seasonal menus includes five spritzes, and since opening in 2014, more than 60 variations have been featured. “My hope is that we’re making the spritz less intimidating in the context of making it super fun and using ingredients that don’t traditionally go into a spritz,” says David. Take her Cosmic Climb, for example, which combines the French aperitif Pineau des Charentes with blanco tequila, jalapeño, apricot, honey, lemon and sparkling peach sake; it ticks all the spritz boxes—wine-based, low proof, lightly bitter and sparkling—but it’s far from classic.
David’s go-to spritz formula starts by adding three hand-cracked Kold-Draft ice cubes to a large white wine glass and topping those with whole cubes. It’s a decision that adds a “little instant dilution” to help mellow more viscous elements like amaro. She then adds two ounces of wine followed by one ounce of a low-proof fortified wine like Lillet or Cocchi Americano. Three-quarters of an ounce of something bitter, a defining characteristic of an Italian spritz, is then introduced to the equation. For this, David tends to blend different styles of amaro for added complexity. “I think I’ve pretty much tried every amaro spritz variation possible,” she says. “The thing that’s so great about amaro is that it’s an endless world. There’s something for every single palate. The Italians really worked something out there.”
Where David departs from the classic specs is in the addition of a teaspoon-measure of fruit liqueur, which adds a bright layer of flavor and further demonstrates the flexibility of the formula. Naturally, everything then gets topped with something bubbly. While David reaches for prosecco on occasion, more often than not she looks to less-expected choices, like lambrusco, sparkling rosé or even sparkling blueberry sake. As for a garnish, she prefers a fresh citrus slice for what she calls “juicy relief” from the bittersweet combination of ingredients. She serves her spritz without a straw to encourage guests to bring their nose close to the glass to better experience the bubbles and aromatics. “The template is very interchangeable,” says David. “I obviously veer away from this, but I feel like it’s where I always start.”
Her Canelli Spritz is the perfect example of her template at work. This “kitchen sink” spritz represents her take on an adult version of the only soda her mother allowed her to drink growing up (save for a Coca-Cola on her birthday)—a DIY number made with berry concentrate from the local health-food store mixed with sparkling water. The wine component in this case is a dry Italian rosé with the fortified wine represented by Cocchi Rosa, an aromatic, gentian-based aperitivo, while Amaro Ramazzotti brings its subtly bitter profile and herbal root beer notes to the mix. The touch of fruit liqueur comes in the form of Giffard Crème de Framboise, and the whole thing is topped with sparkling wine and garnished with a grapefruit crescent.
“The spritz should be an easy, effortless cocktail—something you can throw together from what you have on hand,” says David, noting that fresh raspberries can stand in for the liqueur, and another amaro can be substituted for Ramazzotti. “The whole idea behind the spritz, even before the ingredients, is the culture. Engaging with friends and having a lively conversation . . . to me that’s the most important ingredient of a spritz.”