You might have heard the word “aperitivo” once or twice if you have Italian friends, as it is a common word we use to describe the light snack, usually accompanied by an alcoholic beverage, which predates dinner.
My job today is to describe in detail what aperitivo implies, so that Americans can hopefully adopt this custom, or so you’ll be prepared should you attend an aperitivo the next time you find yourself strolling the streets of the Eternal City.
Like every occasion related to food in Italy, it is a social occurrence more than a fulfillment of human bodily needs. Unlike American’s happy hour, where places offer drinks and food at reduced prices, aperitivo involves the consumption of a drink that comes with a complementary light snack. The purpose is stimulating the appetite while enjoying a conversation with anyone who is accompanying you – whether it is your colleagues after a day of work, a new date, your spouse, or simply a group of friends. The most similar thing that Americans have is that cocktail hour with the complimentary salted nuts.
The Milanese claim they invented the aperitivo, but the tradition actually originated in my hometown, Torino, in 1786, when the owner of a liquor shop invented vermouth, a white wine reinforced with an infusion of over 30 herbs. Vermouth started being served as a pre-dinner treat along with tiny bites – also typical of Torino – such as tramezzini, olives, and salatini.
What should you wear to an aperitivo?
First of all, you need to make sure your outfit is appropriate for the place and the people you’re going to see. If your aperitivo is going to be a quick meeting with your friends at a café after a football match on a Saturday, you can probably skip the blazer and save your expensive cologne for another occasion. However, if your aperitivo is a date or it takes place at a nicer bar or restaurant, I recommend going for a classic but always appropriate combination of blazer or sport coat and tailored pants. You can play with the accessories to add character to the mix, and to make sure you’re properly dressed for the weather. For instance, if you’re lucky enough to enjoy an aperitivo by the seaside, a light silk scarf might come in handy, and it instantly adds charm to the whole look; a pair of sunglasses will protect your eyes if you’re sipping your drink al fresco while earning you extra cool points (because really, who doesn’t look good in sunglasses?)
My only recommendation is to leave the tie at home – or remove it if you’re going out directly after work: it will make people around you more comfortable, it will show them that you value the leisure time you spend in their company, and that you left behind your work day.
What do you drink at an aperitivo?
Today, vermouth is no longer the only option when you want to treat yourself to an aperitivo. For the summer months, the most popular drinks are the infamous spritz – a cocktail made of prosecco, Campari, and a splash of sparkling water – and the mojito. White wines are also a valid option, especially if bubbly, and typically every place serves its own aperitivo concoction made of fresh fruit and alcohol. For those who choose not to imbibe, alcohol-free options involve juice-like drinks made of fresh fruit and seltzer water.
During the winter months, the negroni is always a hit, along with red wines and any other cocktail the bar offers.
What do you eat at an aperitivo?
Most places will provide your table with free snacks such as olives, potato chips, and tiny sandwiches to consume while you enjoy your drink. In the past few years, many places adopted the concept of apericena (aperitivo+cena – dinner). With the purchase of one drink, the customer has access to a large buffet that is essentially all-you-can-eat. The selection varies, but it usually consists of cheese and cured meats, pizza, sandwiches, deep fried vegetables, salad, and – occasionally – warm dishes such as pasta and risotto. Apericena are understandably quite popular among young people, since they provide a fulfilling dinner and a drink for less than €10.
If you’re not likely to visit Italy in the immediate future, you’ve still got the chance to enjoy aperitivo in the comfort of your own home – just like I do.
In fact, when I moved to US three years ago I made sure to bring with me a few things I could not live without – the bidet and aperitivo were on top of the list. I will not bore you with the details of the former (maybe that’s going to be Jasper’s next assignment for me), but I can provide you with a list of things you need in order to organize an aperitivo at your own place.
- Drinks. If you’d like to try your hand at bartending, a spritz is a quick and easy recipe and it’s likely to be appreciated by everyone in your group (but do keep a bottle of wine in the fridge in case a guest asks).
- Food. If you’re not in the mood to prepare tiny sandwiches and warm dishes, you can just buy plain ingredients and serve them in small cups. Grab some olives from the grocery store – and make sure they’re not pitted and they come from Italy or Spain. Serve them with a plate of your favorite cheese and some cured meats, if you can get them fresh the same day (do NOT buy the packaged types that taste like fat-laden cardboard). Potato chips and similar snacks will work just as fine, especially if you don’t intend this to be your dinner.
- Pay attention to the setting… Even if it’s just a late afternoon snack, make sure everything looks tidy and pleasant to the eye. Food tastes better when it looks good. Use matching cups and the appropriate glasses for the type of drinks you’re serving. For a full Italian experience, treat your table to a nice, clean tablecloth.
- …and to the outfit. It would be a shame to present such a lovely table to your guests and not look just as glorious.
- Repeat. That’s right. Aperitivo is not a special occasion. On the contrary, it is a trivial one, like having coffee after school. It is a time for people to get together and catch up on everything that’s going on in their life, whilst consuming delicious snacks and beverages. Having an aperitivo at your own place is also a wonderful way to save money if you’re on a budget, since it’s way cheaper than having a drink out (and you get to choose the music, which is not of little importance if you, like me, are already sick of Taylor Swift’s latest album blasting out of speakers in any public space).
Naturally, you don’t need to serve wine or cocktails each time; you can get creative and make your own, alcohol-free signature drinks for the aperitivo. It can be as simple as seltzer water with an infusion of citrus fruit and berries, or more elaborate using juice and maraschino cherries to decorate, but I would advise against sodas. As I mentioned at the beginning, aperitivo is a social occasion – and what matters in the end is finding the time to enjoy the company of your friends, your colleagues, your date, or even your partner at the end of a long day.
Food and beverages have the magical power to bring on conviviality; the Romans and the ancient Greeks knew this well, and those who could afford a proper banquet would organize the courses around the topics of conversations that they intended to discuss. The banquet described in the Satyricon by Petronius is a perfect example, with one of the courses being a statue of the fertility god Priapus with the belly filled with saffron-squirting cakes and fruits. Or, think of the power of gathering around the table in Plato’s Symposium, where inebriated men praise the god of love, Eros.
If you’re keen on medieval lore, you’ll certainly know that King Arthur made the round table specifically to encourage conversation and deliver a sense of equality among his knights, so that they all could be served equally and sit equally at its board. Each man’s opinion was therefore equally valuable.
Today, our lifestyles brought us to consider our food as merely either a primary need – thereby consuming our meals quickly in order to be able to return soon to our daily activities – or we focus entirely on the food by experimenting with textures, colors, and flavors, or perhaps calculating those macronutrients. Only during special occasions, such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, or other celebrations, do people and food reconnect to create that special experience that our ancestors so deeply treasured.
The good thing is that we can re-educate ourselves to find balance again, and enjoy company as much as food when the two happen to encounter. You can do so by picking up an exotic custom such as the Italian aperitivo, or you can research yourself the method that best suits your lifestyle and interests.
Whatever your intentions are, bring a good attitude along with a nice bottle and tasty food, and you’ll have the recipe for the best time of your day.