While Italy is famous for its food culture and for its great love of life, there is a little Italian cultural phenomenon that you may not have heard of yet. An aperitivo is essentially the best part of the day on any day of the week. It’s a very important part of the Italian culture but also a tradition that travelers must experience while visiting. If you don’t make some time for an aperitivo, regardless of which city you’re in, you’re certainly doing Italy all wrong… Plus you’re just missing out on a big part of the ‘la bella vita’ lifestyle.
SO TELL ME WHAT IT IS!
The concept of an aperitivo, or aperitif, was invented as far back as 1786! A man named Antonio Benedetto Carpano created a drink which he claimed would encourage your appetite.
Essentially, the aperitivo is a drink and small snack after working hours but before dinner. And no, it’s not a happy hour. It’s so much more about warming up for a long night of eating. The traditional Italian dinner will have an antipasto (appetizer), primo (pasta or rice), and secondo (meat or protein of some sort). So Italians have some alcohol and a little bit of food before that to get ready for a big traditional dinner.
The aperitivo is a northern tradition and so Milan, northern Italy’s biggest metropolitan city, is the best place in the country for one. However, major Italian cities are beginning to copy Milan’s aperitivo. Most buffet style aperitivos and large spreads are only found in Milan though. However, the concept of the aperitivo is found all over Italy.
SO HOW DOES IT WORK?
Typically, an aperitivo is enjoyed at a bar of your choosing with buffet-style or table service small plates, depending on the place. If you’re in the city center or in a touristic area, make sure you don’t fall for any tourist traps. It’s normal for an aperitivo to cost around €10. If it costs more than that, it’s only worth it if the place is particularly fancy or has expensive wine or a nice view. Once you decide on the place and sit down, you can order a drink. The first drink and food are always included in the fixed price (usually €10). You can also try one of the non-alcoholic cocktails if you don’t like alcohol!
After ordering, feel free to hit up the buffet, if you’ve opted for that style. If not, sit tight and wait for the drinks and appetizer plate to come. Aperitivo places will expect you to pay as soon as the drinks arrive. Since this custom is widely practiced all over Italy, places can become crowded and have a high turn over of customers. So to avoid confusion you will be expected to pay when you receive your drink and not when you leave. It’s easy to go with friends since most bars are very accommodating when it comes to paying separately.
The time for eating meals, especially dinner, varies all over the world. Italians however usually eat dinner around 8/8:30pm at the earliest. So, the perfect time for an aperitivo is usually around 6:30/7pm. It may be tough for some, especially British and German people, who typically start eating dinner at around 5:30/6pm.
BUT… DO I EAT DINNER AFTERWARDS?
The aperitivo is supposed to be a warm-up for dinner. Usually Italians have bitter drinks paired with salty appetizers like cheeses, cured meats, olives and sometimes small plates of pasta. In fact, in certain places eating a lot of food while only ordering one drink can be incredibly rude, as an aperitivo is only supposed to be a small snack. However, it is becoming more common for people, especially younger Italians on a tight budget, to eat plenty of food during the aperitivo. Many places have started putting out a larger variety of food in their buffet. Just make sure you order plenty of drinks if you’re planning on eating a lot to make sure the aperitivo place gets paid!
THE BEST APERITIVO DRINKS
The most famous Italian drink is the Negroni. This is a very bitter dark martini made with gin. If this doesn’t appeal to you, try the negroni sbagliato (literally “negroni done wrong”), which has prosecco instead of gin. Campari/Aperol are also some great options mixed with some soda or in the famous Italian Spritz. Both of these are quite bitter.
The Aperol is the less bitter of the two, as the Spritz also has some sparkling wine in it which sweetens the taste. The Amari are also well-known drinks for the Italian aperitivo. So if you like bitter flavors and have already tasted the Campari and Aperol, try the Cynar. It tastes of alcohol and artichokes and it’s an interesting new flavor to try in Italy. If you’re looking for something a little less bitter and with less alcohol, try the Martini Bianco or Martini Rosso.