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Finding a definitive answer to what goes into sangria is akin to forcing a spaghetti recipe out of one extremely reticent granny. "Well, let me see," your normally loquacious Grandma Ethel may aggravatingly respond. "I use a little of this, little of that . . . whatever's available." The quick answer is there is no real answer, although it's safe to assume dear Grams would like to drag each precious meatball to the grave with her.
The dilemma is the same with the popular Spanish punch because, like your grandmother's dish, there's no one enlightened path. There are some basic ideasobviously, wine and cut up fruitbut things after that can move into the perilously nebulous, depending on whether you're shooting for a rich, fruit-tinged wine or a satisfying glass of backwashed Bartles & James. Sites like drinkalizer.com frighteningly suggest adding a retchy combo of Sprite, Coca-Cola, and Fanta; another Web site entitled barcelonaby.com boldly advises tossing in banana liqueur. Strange that the name sangria actually comes from the Spanish word for blood, "sangre"with so many weak takes on this popular punch, we were beginning to think it was some euphemism for wine cooler.
Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that sangria itself is not all that big in its mother countryit's equivalent to the margarita in Mexico. "In Mexico, you order tequila with lemon and beer, or you have tequila straight up . . . And when you go to a bar in Spain, you never, ever ask for a pitcher of sangria," says Hector Sanz, the restaurant director at Pipa and Lucy. "It's like eggnog over there. I'm from near Madrid, and we only had it once a year."
To make a good one, Sanz himself advises macerating the fruit in the wine, brandy, orange liqueur, and orange juice for at least 24 hours, "so you don't have to add sugar." According to Sanz, all the sugar should come from the fruit and is released into the wine during the maceration period. Another common pitfall, according to Sanz, is thinking a fancy wine will make it better. "You just need a young wine, a young Rioja." And, "the soda water doesn't have to be mixed in, just at the end, to give it life." Though you should add the orange juice and other fruits at the beginning, save the actual orange for lastearly on, "the orange skin is too acidic." After that, just like grandma, Sanz has few rules. "I recommend being creative," seems to be one of his firmest suggestions. But keep in mind that with sangria, you're ideally going for a drink that is "fruit-oriented, refreshing, and not too much like wineand by this I mean, the oaky part of wine."
With many bars in the city offering their own versions every summerno lie, even International Bar's got itit's hard to know where to go. Here are some suggestions, depending on what you are after:
Great raves, great value
El Cid ($8 glass; $15 sm. pitcher; $17 large): Their secret is quality brandy and skipping on the sugar.
Ñ ($5 glass; $18 pitcher): Red and white are both offered, although the white is sold only by the glass, for $7.50.
AKA Café ($5 glass): Made with apples, strawberries, and grapes, AKA's sangria blanco is $3 all day Monday and other times Tuesday through Saturday.
Pio Pio ($5 glass; $10 1/2 pitcher; $18 pitcher): The Woodside Peruvian chicken joint also serves sangria at their Upper East Side location.
Well-regarded, but pricey
Sevilla ($11.25 sm. pitcher; $19 large pitcher): The Greenwich Village restaurant's sangria is a favorite of many, although we personally found it a little cloyingly sweet.
Solera ($7 glass; $30.50 pitcher): Save by eating tapas at the bar of this expensive Midtown date spot.
Take it outside
Patio Lounge Park Slope's favorite backyard bar offers $10 pitchers from 5 p.m.-8 p.m.
Porch ($6 glass; $24 pitcher): The back patio of this East Village spot is best on those less-crowded weekdays.
Café Noir ($7 glass; $29 pitcher): OK, it's not exactly outside, but the open windows near the front can help you pretend. Noir's is made from a Burgundy wine, with a little Chablis mixed in.
Pipa ($10 glass; $32 pitcher): One of our favorite sangrias, Sanz makes it with apricot brandy, Chambord, and Cointreauand it tastes even better outside in the summertime. Sangria with Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, is also available.
Variations on a theme
La Palapa ($8 glass; $19 pitcher): The tropical white hibiscus is used for this restaurant's house creation.
Divine Bar West ($8.50 glass; $30 pitcher): Ever hear of cranberry sangria? Yeah, neither had we.
Xicala ($6 glass; $24 pitcher): The recipe for their trademark strawberry sangria is a highly-protected secret even the bartenders don't know; they occasionally do a peach version as well. Hit it up for happy hour, when a glass is a buck off, and pitchers $3 less.
Not worth it