Inside the oldest wine bar on earth

Livia Hengel

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Although Ferrara doesn’t tend to make an appearance on most travelers’ whirlwind tours through Italy, this elegant medieval town holds its own in terms of history, culture and gastronomy, and is well worth a visit for anyone interested in honoring Italy’s longstanding enological heritage. That’s because Ferrara – overshadowed as it may be by Rome’s monuments, Florence’s art, Venice’s canals, and even Bologna’s tortellini – is home to Al Brindisi, the oldest wine bar in the world.

Al Brindisi dates back to 1435 and is recognized as the oldest enoteca (wine bar) in the world in the Guinness Book of World Records. To put that into perspective, the world’s oldest restaurant in continuous use is Sobrino de Botín in Madrid, open since 1725, and the oldest café in the world is either Caffè Florian in Venice, established in 1720, or Café Procope, open since 1686. Al Brindisi predates these establishments by a couple hundred years and has aged gracefully throughout the years, remaining an important fixture in the city of Ferrara.

Photo courtesy of Livia Hengel

Tucked just behind Ferrara’s striking Romanesque cathedral, Al Brindisi is a relatively inconspicuous watering hole save for a bright yellow sign and a dozen seats outside beneath a red awning that provides shade from the midday sun. Today it attracts thirsty patrons eager for a relaxed glass of wine and plate of cold cuts or regional cheeses, but at its heyday it was a center for intellectual progress and attracted illustrious figures in the arts and sciences. The luminary Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus studied briefly at the University of Ferrara in 1503 and lived upstairs while developing his theory of the heliocentric system (no doubt assisted by an enlightening glass of wine).

Other important figures include Reniassance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini and Venetian painter Titian, and poets Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso also spent long afternoons and evenings gathering at the wine bar. More recently, in the 1970s, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Wiszinsky, the primate of Poland, visited Al Brindisi to mark the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth.

Photo courtesy of Livia Hengel

Although the first record of the bar dates back to the 15th century, Al Brindisi was already famous at the time and was likely established around 1100 as a respite for the workers of Ferrara’s cathedral right next door. The wine bar was also originally called “Hosteria del Chiuchiolino,” a reference to the Italian word “chiù” which means a “drunk” in the local dialect, while the current iteration “Al Brindisi” is a nod to the Italian word “brindare” which means “to cheers.” Patrons originally arrived to the establishment by boat because the street was located on a canal, thanks to flooding during heavy winter rains. The canal, named “Gorgo”, lends its name to the current street which is now called “Via Gorgadello”.

Al Brindisi stocks thousands of Italian and international bottles and has a dozen rotating wines by the glass on the menu, with an focus on wines from the Emilia-Romagna region, including a wide selection of vino fermo (or still wine) or vino frizzante (fizzy wine). You can taste bubbly Lambrusco, a sweet rosé that pairs well with the fatty hams and cheeses of the region, or order traditional Ferrarese dishes such as cappellacci di zucca al burro e salvio (pumpkin ravioli with butter and sage) or salamina al sugo (a soft salami cooked with spices and red wine served with mashed potatoes).

Al Brindisi is open Tues - Sun from 11am – midnight.

Livia Hengel

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