Italian Table Talk: The aperitivo
It’s early evening, you’ve finished work and are ready to wind down. Perhaps you’re also a tiny bit hungry, or, at least, are at that point where you start imagining what you’ll be eating for dinner. You’re on your way home and perhaps it’s a place on the way, your regular, where you know you’ll bump into a friend or two and a drink is in order, along with some nibbles. Nothing that will ruin your appetite for dinner, of course, anzi (quite the contrary), something that will help it along. That’s the aperitivo.
The word “aperitivo” is the name for both the ritual of going out for a pre-dinner drink, as well as the sort of drink that you would probably have at such a ritual. “Aperitivo” comes from the Latin word meaning “to open” and in Italian you still describe the effect of something appetising – that sensation you get when you smell garlic sizzling in butter or your favourite cake baking in the oven – as something that literally “opens your stomach.” That’s the idea behind the Italian aperitivo, a little something to encourage you to feel hungry, to get the juices flowing, if you will, so you can fully enjoy your upcoming meal.
Unsurprisingly, the people credited with inventing the aperitivo ritual were also the creators of the ideal aperitivo beverages – Antonio Benedetto Carpano, the creator of Vermouth, in Torino in 1786 (and later, Joseph Dubbonet brought the aperitif to Paris). Good marketing ploy? Perhaps. But the habit of taking an aperitivo in the evening before a meal became an enormously popular one in a short amount of time and soon the classic bars and cafes of the big Italian cities were serving up aperitivo to their fashionable nineteenth century clients. Today aperitivo still plays an important role in Italian social life and is as much about the food and drink as it is about socialising.
There are, as with anything to do with eating and drinking in Italy, rules.
Certain beverages are seen as appropriate aperitivi, “stomach-opening” liquids that will have your tummy rumbling as they’re thought to help kickstart your digestion. They’re usually relatively low in alcohol content and dry or even bitter rather than sweet – things like prosecco, vermouth (of course), Campari or Aperol. In the beginning these were often served straight up or on the rocks, but now more commonly they are mixed – see below for the classics. Their non-alcoholic counterparts include drinks such as Sanbitter (bianco or rosso) and Crodino, bittersweet, slightly medicinal tasting soft drinks. Then you have drinks that are known as digestivi, or sometimes known as an amazzacaffe (a “coffee killer” for the fact that you take it after you’ve had your after dinner espresso), after dinner drinks, to help you digest your heavy meal after a particularly indulgent eating session – things like grappa, sambuca or any number of amari (called so for their characteristic bitterness) such as Averna or Montenegro. Some are even considered both aperitivi and digestivi, sharing those much-appreciated digestive properties. The retro artichoke liqueur, Cynar, is an example of a herby, bitter drink that was marketed as both.
While traditionally a small, complimentary offering of nuts, olives, perhaps some grissini, cheese or salumi, may accompany your drink, you can find more and more elaborate meals being offered. It’s become (annoyingly) popular now for bars to do an apericena, rather than a traditional aperitivo. Apericena is a made up word (a combination of aperitivo and cena, dinner) to describe a richer, larger buffet of food, an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of (usually) lunch leftovers that are repurposed and revived for the aperitivo-goer to dine on, all included in the cost of one drink. I personally find this goes against the whole idea of what an aperitivo is and it unfortunately has become the rule rather than the exception in most cities, such as Florence, where bars take advantage of using up their leftovers to charge more for their cocktails. It’s much-used by penniless students and other folk, who use the apericena as dinner for the cost of a drink, but what happens when you all you want is a drink because you’re about to go home to your favourite homemade ragu or you’re on your way out to dinner and don’t need or want to eat twice?
For those few establishments that still serve a good, proper aperitivo – a little bowl of nuts or olives, or perhaps even a tidy little plate of stuzzichini, canape-like nibbles – you may need to search a bit deeper these days. In places like Venice they have conserved beautifully their traditional ritual of bites to eat – known as cicchetti – with their favourite drinks (namely, the spritz) and is a custom that can easily be compared to the aperitivo but which is a ritual of its own that you only find in Venice. To me, the Venetian way is the ideal way aperitivo should be conducted. You pay for your drink (a spritz can cost as little as 2.50 euro), perhaps a cicchetto or two (1-2 euros each) and that’s you ready to go and no need to break the bank. See below for a couple of places suggested to visit.
What to drink.
The classic aperitivi are simple and although they have originated in very specific places, they are now found universally around Italy and beyond – the spritz, whether Campari or Aperol based, is a mainstay of the Venetian aperitivo but as beloved in other cities now too. There’s nothing else I’d rather have on a summer evening: roughly 3 parts prosecco, 2 parts Aperol or Campari (I’m of the Aperol camp personally), a splash of soda and lots (and I mean LOTS) of ice. Garnish with a half slice of orange.
There’s also the Americano, but let me tell you first about a similar drink, the Negroni. It is Florence’s only claim to fame in the cocktail world. “Invented” in 1919 by Count Camillo Negroni, inspired after trip to London, the Count asked the bartender at what is now Florence’s Caffe Giacosa to stiften his Americano with some gin in place of the soda water. Equal parts of gin, vermouth and cherry-red Campari, the Negroni is, like the spritz, served with plenty of ice and a half slice of orange. It’s a little stronger than your average aperitivo, the bitter, cough-syrup-like Campari giving it its distinct ruby hue as well as its mouth-watering quality – exactly what makes it a perfect aperitivo. Your mouth waters, stimulating your appetite and letting your digestive system get prepared for dinner. James Bond drank it when he wasn’t ordering martinis, and when Orson Welles tried his first Negroni in 1947 he observed, “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.”
Another aperitivo that I love but unlike the spritz, Americano and Negroni, you are unlikely to find outside of its northern hometown of Bassano del Grappa is the mezzo e mezzo, “half and half”. A closely guarded recipe of local bitters, served with no ice and lemon rind. You also can’t go wrong with a simple glass of prosecco for aperitivo.
What to eat.
If you’re replicating your own aperitivo at home (something I love doing), a simple antipasto is what you’ll need to accompany your aperitivo. Try a plate of cheese and salumi, some crostini – in Tuscany, you can never go wrong with a plate of crostini di fegatini or stracchino e salsiccia – or something deep fried like these wild garlic fritters or polpette di trippa, delicious tripe meatballs (don’t judge until you have tried these!). If you’re going down the Venetian route, these vinegar soaked sarde in saor on a slice of baguette are just the thing with a spritz or a glass of prosecco.
Where to have it.
These photographs were all taken at tried and true places for a great aperitivo experience and I highly recommend them if you’re passing through Venice, Florence or a day trip away (respectively) in charming Bassano del Grappa or coastal Castiglioncello. From top to bottom, left to right: Caffe Rosso, Campo Santa Margherita, Venice; All’Arco, San Paolo, Venice; Station Gallery, Castiglioncello (LI), Tuscany; Circolo A.S. Aurora, Piazza Tasso, Florence; a bar in Bassano del Grappa, Veneto.
Italian Table Talk is a monthly discussion on aspects, traditions and ingredients of true Italian cuisine amongst a group of four bloggers – join our facebook page if you want to keep in touch with us. Check out the rest of this month’s aperitivo edition: Giulia fries up a southern favourite, mozzarella in carrozza, to go with her aperitivo; Valeria discusses the aperitivo ritual in her native north-eastern Italy and shares a typical Venetian cicchetto recipe, meso ovo, while Jasmine does aperitivo in her city, Milan and a great version of the negroni, a negroni sbagliato.