Updated: Dec 23, 2019
They are long leisurely affairs to be undertaken with friends in the early evening, the food is usually more than decent, and they are affordable even on the most meagre of budgets: it’s aperitivo time!!!
An aperitivo is principally a pre-dinner drink: with some snacks or food included. It literally means 'opening' - you are opening the stomach to be ready for dinner. For most Italians, it’s a chance to socialize at the end of the day; to relax, and have a light snack before dinner. The aperitivo is more popular in the north of Italy, though you’ll find a form of it throughout Italy. In Venice, they call theirs chiccetti, and is taken very seriously.
Now, let’s start by making it clear that the aperitivo in no way resembles the "Happy Hour" you come across in Australia, where the aim seems generally to be to consume as much alcohol as possible for as cheaply as possible. In fact, if you see the words "Happy Hour" in a bar in Italy, it is almost certain they are catering to tourists. That's not to say it won't be reasonable value; it's just that you're likely to be given a few peanuts and potato crisps with your drink, rather than some of the tastier options I'll touch on later.
Usually (except when you’re in Happy-Hour-land) drinks are not discounted: in fact, you’re likely to pay a little extra because you will be getting more than just a drink: you’ll get snacks or food as well.
How much more you pay will depend on the reputation and location of where you are and can vary quite a lot. It pays to do some research (and like with many things, the best approach is ask a local... a chat with your hotel reception can be a good place to start). A good aperitivo usually ranges from 5 to 12 euro and the same flat rate charge may be applied to beer, wine, cocktails and perhaps even mineral water.
Whilst you can find a ‘lunch aperitivo’ or even one mid-afternoon, prime aperitivo time is in the early evening from around 6pm to 8pm (although bars are often empty before 7pm). Remember, Italians dine late.
The food offerings to complement your drink will differ from place to place. As suggested, sometimes you’ll just get a small bowl of potato crisps or nuts and maybe some olives. The better bars may provide a plate of small nibbles like bruschetta, focaccia, or perhaps meats and cheeses, and some places get even more elaborate with fresh pizza, pasta, prosciutto, suppli (fried rice balls), fresh savoury pastries and cheeses like fresh mozzarella. A number provide an aperitivo buffets, where you can choose yourself from an array of food.
Particularly in the fashionable neighbourhoods of Milan and Rome, aperitivo has morphed into a nightly phenomenon of complimentary spreads so lavish that the three courses that are supposed to follow are almost a thing of the past.
The jury is out regarding whether you should return to the buffet for seconds on the strength of one drink. Some folk say it is fine; but be prepared for some frowning looks from the owner and the locals in some bars. As a rule of thumb, I hold that one drink means one plate of food (but I’ll leave the decision to you and your appetite….).
Aperitivo drinks are broadly divided into two categories: alcolici (alcoholic), and analcolici (non-alcoholic) drinks. Analcolici drinks can range from a soft drink, like Coke, to delicious fresh fruit juice cocktails (aperitivo analcolico alla frutta) to a non-alcoholic bitter like Sanbitter (but to me a non-alcoholic aperitivo is like spending your wedding night on your own….).
For many Italians, Campari or Aperol are their mixers of choice for aperitivo, and these form the base of a number of traditional Italian aperitivo drinks, like the Americano, the Spritz, and the Negroni.
Traditionally, a Negroni is gin, vermouth and Campari, and garnished with an orange peel, but there are other ways to make a Negroni, too. For example, a Negroni sbagliato (“wrong”) substitutes the gin with spumante brut (dry, sparkling white wine).
The Americano starts out like the Negroni but instead of using gin, soda water is added to the cocktail in a tall glass that lightens up the cocktail quite a bit.
The Spritz is made with soda water, prosecco and either Campari or Aperol (with lots of ice) and you will see it everywhere at aperitivo time; bringing colour to tables outside nearly every café and bar.
You aren’t limited to these beverages: in fact, anything can literally be on the table at aperitivo time. You can even enjoy a beer, however a few eyebrows might be raised so don’t be wearing anything with the Aussie flag on it so the rest of us aren’t tarred with the same brush.
Wine is always an acceptable drink for aperitivo, especially Prosecco (traditional Italian sparkling white wine), Spumante (a sweet or dry sparkling white wine), and Fragolino or Brachetto (sweet, sparkling red wines).
Remember: Italian food customs are very regional, and that goes for aperitivo, too. Milan is, hands-down, the best place for aperitivo in Italy. Especially in beautiful Navigli, the bars are buzzing and the selection of both food and drinks for aperitivo is excellent.
The further south you go, the harder it can be to find a “proper” aperitivo - but the trend is catching on. Rome, Florence, even Naples all now have thriving aperitivo scenes (even if the Milanese might scoff at them) and some of the establishments are very lively and great for people-watching in the evenings!
For visitors, hitting up an evening aperitivo can be a great way to experience local culture, to people-watch, to unwind with a drink after a long day of sightseeing… and to take the edge off the pangs of hunger while waiting for that 9pm meal!