The Culture of the Italian Aperitivo
A big part of Italian culture revolves around food, and one of these traditions is Aperitivo. Aperitivo is more than just the Italian equivalent of happy hour; it has become a staple of Italian culture in the late afternoon.
Besides sipping cocktails and snacking on chips and peanuts, aperitivo is a time to catch up with friends after the work day is over.
Aperitivo is usually enjoyed from 6 pm to 8 pm, followed by dinner.
Aperitivo has become so entrenched in Italian culture that high schoolers do it, too, as well as foreigners visiting the country.
The Meaning of Aperitivo
Aperitivo is the literal translation of the (French-derived) English term “aperitif”, a pre-dinner drink. The root of the word aperitivo comes from Latin and means “open up your appetite”.
Comparing it to happy hour is not entirely correct as the formula is quite different. Happy Hour implies half-price off drinks during that hour, whereas Italian aperitivo does not necessarily offer a discount, however, food or snacks are usually served with the drinks.
The origin of the aperitivo can be traced back to Turin in northern Italy. The fascinating tale begins in 1786, when Antonio Benedetto Carpano began making Vermouth, a flavored wine infused with herbs and spices.
Since then, this alcoholic drink has established itself as the standard aperitif.
Aperitivo might have been invented in Turin more than 200 years ago, but the putative cradle of the aperitivo is Milan. This city is the best place to partake in the tradition of aperitivo as every bar offers an excellent selection of food and drinks.
In Milan, doing aperitivo after school or work is almost mandatory and has a whole vibe attached to it. You will always find Milanese organizing their next aperitivo like Americans plan for a brunch!
The Milanese have their own take on the aperitivo origin story, in credits Gaspare Campari, creator of the Campari drink as the father of the aperitvo.
Every big and small city throughout Italy has its aperitivo scene, which you can try wherever you go.
The list of drinks one can order for aperitivo is long and wide. However, some drinks are a staple of every aperitivo.
The most iconic one is the Aperol Spritz. This bold orange drink is made with Aperol, prosecco wine, fizzy water, and ice, and finished with a slice of orange. The name “spritz” comes from the fizzy water added to the drink. The slightly bitter taste of Aperol is universally adored!
Spritz can also be made with Campari rather than Aperol, which is how the Milanese make it. Adding Campari gives the drink a deep red color and a sharper, bitter taste.
Another traditional drink for Aperitivo is Vermouth, which is usually paired with other ingredients to make cocktails.
The Americano is one of the most popular drinks made with Vermouth, Campari, fizzy water, ice, and a slice of orange. Another drink is Negroni, where the Vermouth is mixed with gin and Campari. Even though it’s quite potent, many Italians choose this beverage as their Aperitivo of choice.
Although these are the most popular drinks, for Aperitivo you can have whatever you like. Nowadays, there is no need to stick to traditionally bitter cocktails. If you fancy Prosecco, a glass of red wine, or a beer, order anything you like during your Aperitivo.
For non-alcoholic options, Crodino and Chinotto are popular bitter drinks; however, you won’t see younger Italians have them as they are considered “demodè” (out of style). You can also ask for un analcolico, which is a cocktail without the alcoholic part. The bartender will likely ask if you want your analcolico to be bitter or sweet and then propose something they can mix in-house.
Snacks are always included with the price of the drink during Aperitivo. Italians certainly like to have some food along with their drinks!
Usually, bars serve a few peanuts, some chips, and a couple of green olives for Aperitivo. However, at more upscale bars, you might find yourself dining on richer fare like taralli, pizzette (tiny pizza bites), and panini (small sandwiches).
The Milanese have invented a new frontier of aperitivo, the Apericena. As the name suggests, the Apericena (aperitivo + cena) is when the aperitivo meets dinner. Rather than just a few snacks, there is a selection of food or a small buffet. The Apericena includes a selection of pasta, rice salads, frittatas, bite-size pizzas, and vegetables. Apericena is more expensive than a simple Aperitivo but still cheaper than a proper dinner, so it’s perfect for enjoying a light meal while in Italy.
Article by Marcia Constantine
Photos Celia Abernethy