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Understanding the Art of Italy’s Aperitivo Hour

Italy Food + Drink
by Kellie Mortimer Feb 11, 2020

Italians are known for their art. Throughout history, Italy has been celebrated for its Renaissance paintings and sculptures, cutting-edge fashion, and gothic architecture. However, there is another Italian art form essential to Italian culture, and it’s one that’s arguably more fun to participate in: the aperitivo.

Aperitivo comes from the Latin word aperire, meaning “to open.” Historically, an aperitivo was an alcoholic beverage consumed before dinner to whet your appetite. Today, it’s a daily ritual that embodies la dolce vita.

The idea of a pre-dinner drink is not uniquely Italian; however, the Italians begin the evening in a way that cannot be missed. True to form, this daily routine exudes Italy’s quintessential style of slowing down, socializing, drinking, and, of course, eating.

Aperitivo hour, or rather hours, starts every night from around 6:00 PM (though things don’t start to pick up until 7:00 PM) to 9:00 PM at local cafes, bars, hotels, and restaurants throughout Italy. Italians and tourists alike take part in drinks and snacks while they unwind and catch up with friends before their evening meal.

The main event, naturally, is the drinks. Locals use this time to enjoy an early evening drink and, for tourists, it’s a great way to sample some of Italy’s famous cocktails. Most establishments will offer a full menu of alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, but the tradition revolves around classic Italian aperitifs like vermouth, Campari, and Aperol.

Legend has it the ritual was started by Antonio Benedetto Carpano, the creator of modern vermouth, in Turin in the 1780s. He claimed he had concocted the perfect pre-dinner drink that balances bitter and aromatic herbs with fortified white wine to stimulate one’s appetite. Vermouth’s popularity grew so much that the ritual of aperitivo spread throughout the country (or so the story goes).

Like many drinking legends, aperitivo hour’s specific origin is contested. Still, most Italians agree that it started in the northern part of the country. Florence, Venice, and Turin have a thriving aperitivo scene, but Milan is arguably the unofficial capital of the aperitivo. The Milanese bars and restaurants fill up fast as the sun sets, especially along the canals of the Navigli district. The lively bars and extravagant buffets are great for people watching and present incredible value. Beyond Navigli, there is an aperitivo for everyone’s taste and style. Milan comes alive as Italians leave work and meet up with friends to mingle over a drink. Fashionable rooftop bars and trendy hotels offer a slightly more elegant, and expensive, version of the tradition while trattorias and wine bars celebrate the ritual in a more casual and economical adaptation.

The custom also thrives south to the Italian capital and beyond. Many of Rome’s rooftop bars, ritzy hotels, and local cafes participate in the ritual. You’d be hard-pressed to find a town that does not observe Aperitivo in some form.

Regardless of where you go, aperitivo hour is defined by vermouth and other spirits for simple cocktails like the Negroni (Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin), Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda), and the Spritz (Aperol or another amari with Prosecco and soda).

Photo: Mate Karoly/Shutterstock

Aperitivo is also about light snacking. Italy’s cuisine is ubiquitous throughout the world, and aperitivo hours have no shortage of the food we all know and love. For the price of a cocktail (usually between five and 15 euros) restaurant and bar patrons are presented with a variety of Italian snacks. But not all aperitivi are created equal. Some bars will bring out a tray of olives, cheese, and chips while you enjoy your cocktail. Others offer lavish buffets of food including pizzas, salumi, seasonal vegetables, bruschetta, salads, and seafood, all included in the price of your drink. While aperitivo does not traditionally replace dinner, some bars and restaurants serve enough food that you’ll rethink your evening plans.

Wherever the time-honored tradition is enjoyed, the Italian hospitality, refreshing cocktails, and energizing atmosphere make everyone feel a little more integrated into the Italian culture and way of life. After just one Aperol Spritz, it’s easy to see why this centuries-old tradition is a daily highlight of so many. It will have us all rethinking our post-work happy hours and dreaming of sipping a Campari cocktail on a Florentine Piazza or nibbling on fresh Italian cheeses and cured meats overlooking the Venetian canals.

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