Italy’s Aperitivo: What is it? How to Enjoy It

It’s a common maxim that “When in Rome do as the Romans do”. This is especially true in Italy, where local festivals and seasonal food are vital parts of the culture. While you can visit Italy without acquiring any local customs and habits, we do not recommend it. Our favorite Italian tradition is the Aperitivo. This light meal/drink is served at the end the workday to warm up for dinner.

Aperitivo | Photo by Jeroen Moes, Flickr 2020

This is despite the fact that Italian culture is very local. It can be found in nearly every town and city on the peninsula. You are missing one of Italy’s most iconic cultural expressions, and the best way to watch the sunset.

It is what it is

Aperitivo, or aperitif, is often compared to American happy hour. But in reality, it’s so much more.

Aperitivos are a pre-meal drink that is specifically designed to stimulate your appetite. The idea of inducing your stomach to drink alcohol is as old as alcohol itself. However, the modern aperitivo was created (or effectively market) by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in 1786. He also invented one of the first types in Turin, the Vermouth. His special blend of fortified white wine, various herbs and spices stimulated appetite and was more suitable to be enjoyed by ladies than red wine. This made it one of the most popular aperitivo beverages.

Vermouth was very popular, but it is not clear when these boozy pseudo-medicines were first called ‘aperitivi. We do know that the Latin word for “opener” means to open a meal.

The simple drink has become a popular South Italian tradition. It is usually between 7 and 9pm, when Italians gather to enjoy a glass of wine or light cocktails with finger food. It’s a great way to get your metabolism going and build up appetites for dinner, since most people eat lunch at 1 or 2pm.

Aperitivo bars can also be very useful for visitors. It’s a great place to get to know the local culture, people-watch, and unwind after a long day.

How To Drink Like An Italian for tips on how to enjoy a glass of wine in style

Aperitivo food is not meant to replace your dinner, but it can.

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You can eat any kind of snack for aperitivo!

Aperitivo cocktails are typically light in alcohol and sweet on taste. They pair well with salty snacks. As long as you’re drinking, appetizers and light fare should also be available. However, the types of food that can be served vary greatly from cheeses to cured beefs to quiches, vegetables and pizzas to small plates of pasta. Although the idea is to nibble, many tourists and young Italians have started to eat aperitivo instead of eating dinner.

While this is acceptable, it’s not the point of an Aperitivo. Be respectful of others before you eat too much and become a rude tourist. While some bars provide enough food for a small army and are open to multiple trips back or plate sharing, in general, one drink is one meal. You will need to purchase another drink if you want more food.

Aperitivo was originally a northern Italian tradition

As with all Italian food customs the style of your aperitivo is dependent on where you live. Milan has the best aperitivo location in Italy. The bars here are lively and offer a wide range of food and beverages for aperitivo. Even the Milanese have their own version on the aperitivo creation story. Only theirs replaces Antonio Benedetto Carpano and Gaspare Campari who are the inventors of Campari, another well-known aperitif.

It is harder to find an aperitivo that isn’t a buffet-style meal at a specific time each day the further south you travel. But the trend is growing. Rome Florence and Naples all offer aperitivo scenes. Even though the Milanese may laugh at them, many establishments are lively and great for people-watching in evenings.

Don’t expect happy-hour discounts but do expect a good deal

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It’s the Italian Aperitivo Hour – Take note!

Aperitivo doesn’t offer a discount on drinks like American happy hours. Although prices can vary depending on what drink you choose, they are generally between EUR8 and EUR10. You can spend a few hours and get a “bonus” plate of snacks, or a buffet. Once you have ordered your drink, move to the buffet and grab a small plastic plate, fork, and napkin.

How to enjoy your aperitivo

You can choose to have aperitivi buffet-style or you can order a plate of food that is smaller than your drink. In most cases, someone will take your order and place you. While you don’t need to consume alcohol to participate in an aperitivo you must order some beverage if you wish to eat. Try something different than your typical soda. You’re free to eat at the buffet after you have placed your order. When they serve the drinks, you’ll need to pay. This is done to avoid confusion and, if the place is packed, to ensure that everyone pays.

Aperitivo hotspots are busy from 7 to 9 p.m. You can window shop to find the one that suits you best. While some people search for the best food, others go after the best cocktails. There are many bars that offer aperitivi in Italy. But you need to choose carefully: Do you prefer a casual place with piazza seating, or a bar on the rooftop? There are many options.

There will always be tourist traps in tourist areas. They can be hard to spot, but there are things you can do to avoid them. The first thing you should do is look at the cost. Anything over EUR10 will not be accepted unless it’s extremely expensive, in a unique location (Duomo view seating, five-star hotel), and/or has special cocktails. Don’t rush to sit down, no matter what you do. Most places will have a host outside inviting you to come in. You can acknowledge them by nodding and then look around at the food, atmosphere, and menu. If you find all three appealing, you can ask to be seated. Then enjoy a great drink and a night out with your friends.

Continue reading Grappa: Why and Where You Should Try It

What should I order?

The Negroni Sbagliato is one of Italy’s most popular cocktails. Photo by Geoff Peters

Aperitivo hour, while wine is a common drink, is the best time to enjoy a classic Italian drink like Campari or Aperol. They can be mixed with soda or in a sweeter Spritz (sparkling wine or soda and Campari or Aperol). You might prefer bitter brews, but Italy has many amaro. The most popular is Cynar, which is flavored using artichokes. These two types of vermouth have an alcohol content of around 15%. This is in contrast to the martini, which is mainly made of vodka and vermouth. A negroni is Italy’s most well-known classic cocktail. This is a dark martini made with gin and campari. It also contains red vermouth. If you find this too rich, but still want something that has a little more punch than your average spritz, you can try a negroni Sbagliato. This replaces the gin by prosecco. You can find more information about Italian drinks at the Tasting table. This includes details on amari, bitters and aperitivi.

Check out our post on the top Italian cocktails for summer. Learn how to make each one of these delicious cocktails, and much more!

Continue reading: How to drink coffee like an Italian

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