While Italy is famous for its food culture and notorious zest for living relaxed, 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 whether during the Monday–Friday grind or the carefree weekend evenings. It’s a very important part of the Italian culture for those living there but also a tradition that travelers must experience while visiting. If you don’t carve out time for an aperitivo, regardless of the city you’re in, you’re certainly doing Italy all wrong.. Plus you’re just missing out on a contribution to 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 stimulate your appetite.
Essentially, the aperitivo is a drink and small snack after working hours but before dinner. 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, primo (pasta or rice), and secondo (meat or protein of some sort). So, of course, the most logical thing to do is eat before all of that and have some type of alcohol before so you are all warmed up to continue delving into delicious foods all night.
Traditionally, this is a northern tradition. By far, Milan, Italy’s main metropolitan city of the north, is the best place in the country for an aperitivo. However, major cities are beginning to adopt a similar style. Most buffet styles and large spreads will be found mostly 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 centers or touristic areas, be sure not to fall into 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 equipped with an extra incredible view of some sort. Once you decide on the place and are seated, you can order a drink. The first consumption and food are included in the price. While you don’t have to choose something alcoholic, it’s best to try something special. Try asking for the non-alcoholic cocktails if need be!
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. When the drinks arrive, places will expect you to pay immediately. Because this custom is widely practiced all over Italy, places can become crowded and have a high turn over for people stopping in before dinner reservations, so they like to avoid confusion and ensure that everyone at the table pays. It’s simple to go with friends because most bars are very accommodating when it comes to paying separately.
The time for eating meals, especially dinner, varies all over the world. It may be a tough concept for some, especially Americans, who are typically eating dinner around 5:30/6pm until 7pm, because Italians don’t start eating dinner usually until 8/8:30pm at the earliest. So, the perfect time for an aperitivo is usually around 6:30/7pm.
But… I eat dinner afterwards?
While many places have begun to put out a lot of variety for their aperitivo to accommodate this concern, having an aperitivo treated as dinner kind of defeats the purpose of what it is supposed to be. If you’re planning to go to a place and eat plate after plate, it’s best to order at least another drink after the first consumption. In certain places, eating many plates while only ordering one drink can be considerably rude. However, it’s becoming more and more common to do this, even for younger Italians also, who may be on a tight budget. However, the idea of the aperitivo is to serve as warming up for dinner. Drinks are usually more bitter, pairing great with salty appetizers like cheeses, cured meats, olives occasionally small plates of pasta.
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 mistake”), which is made with prosecco as opposed to gin. Campari/Aperol are great options mixed with some soda or in the famous Italian Spritz.
They are bitter, Aperol being the less bitter of the two, but are sweetened a bit in the Sprtiz which consists also of some sparkling wine. Amaro are also well-known drinks for the Italian aperitif, so if you like bitter and have already tasted the two previously mentioned, try Cynar. It’s a one of kind alcohol flavored with artichokes, an interesting add to your list of new flavors to try in Italy. If you’re looking for something a little less bitter and lighter in alcohol, try the Martini Bianco or Martini Rosso.