Conjure up any Italian city at dusk and it’s hard not to imagine elegantly dressed locals unwinding with a glass of sparkling wine in one hand and a few stuzzichini (snacks) in the other. Otherwise known as the art of the Aperitivo.

Aperitivo by John Canelis on Unsplash

Aperitivo – by John Canelis

Like everything else, the Italians conduct their after-work drinks with unmatched and almost unfair sophistication, adding the aperitivo to the long list of things that make us foreigners sigh with envy.

But what is the aperitivo? Let’s start with what it is categorically not: Happy Hour. There are no two for $5 schooners on offer here. No game playing in the background. No absurdly coloured cocktail overburdened with mini umbrellas and floating cherries.
The aperitivo is an evening institution. It’s where friends and family gather for a pre-dinnerdrink. Something fresh and light that will awaken the palette for the dinner to come. Aperitivo comes from the Italian word aprire, which means to open, in this case, your appetite and get things started for the culinary delights ahead.

The origin story

It’s hard to say when and where the aperitivo originated. It’s most popular in Northern Italy and most locals will tell you its spiritual home is in Milan in the 1920s. The local coffee houses wanted to provide their customers with something more than just an after-dinner espresso, so they came up with the aperitivo.

That said, die-hard fans like to think its origins are older and more venerable than a few industrious Milanese businessmen. In their story, Antonio Benedetto Carpano, the man who invented vermouth in Torino in the 18th century, is the hero. Since vermouth doesn’t exactly pair well with pasta, it goes without saying that Carpano encouraged his patrons to get in a few before dinner and so the aperitivo was born.

The modern interpretation

Aperitivo time - © Rosemarie Scavo

Aperitivo time – © Rosemarie Scavo

These days, you can stop for an aperitivo in even the smallest Italian town or village. The coffeehouse where you order your morning espresso will more than likely organize an evening aperitivo, but for something a little fancier, try the local enoteca or vineyard.
The quintessential aperitivo drink is a spritz, which is made with Prosecco, Aperol, and seltzer, but more and more Italians are leaning towards a simple glass of sparkling wine, which is thought to better stimulate the appetite.
Since Italians dine late, your typical aperitivo won’t be served before 7 pm and is always enjoyed alongside snacks. What’s on offer depends on where you are. At the most laidback locations, it’s chips, nuts, and a few olives, but the best places make a real effort with a buffet of locally cured meats, cheeses, homemade bruschetta and even freshly-made pizzas. Since this is included in the price of your drink, you can expect to pay a little more, anywhere between €5 and €15.

While an aperitivo is really only supposed to be a pre-dinner stop, a lot of Italians end up spending their entire night there. That might have something to do with the atmosphere, which is always bright and lively. There’s a lot of catching up going on and it’ll seem like everyone in the bar knows one another. For most Italians, an aperitivo is part of their weekly routine and once they have a favourite spot, they tend to stick to it.

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How to throw your own at home

While an aperitivo is a definite must for your Italian vacation, you don’t have to be living la dolce vita to indulge. One of the most alluring parts of this Italian tradition is its informality. You can just as easily throw together an aperitivo at home sans Italian bar and barista.
Start by getting your hands on a bottle of Italian bubbles. In the summer, sparkling rosés are particularly popular, not to mention an alluringly pretty, accompaniment to any Italian evening.

One of our favourite Italian rosés is the Metodo Classico Clelia Coppo from the Southern Piedmont Coppo winery. It’s fresh and pleasantly savoury, so it pairs well with salty snacks. The Brut Rosa Dodici Lune from Veneto winery, Col Vetoraz, and the DUBL Rosé from Campania winery, Feudi di San Gregorio, are also fantastic for an aperitivo.

Olives by kaboompics

Olives – by kaboompics

Bubbles in hand, it’s time to plan the accompanying snacks. Since these are meant to be pre-dinner nibbles only, keep it simple. Think a fresh cheese like mozzarella with marinated artichokes, olives and crackers. Throw together a few bruschetta with diced tomatoes and basil or a tapenade. Serve alongside a platter of cold cuts: prosciutto, salami and parma ham. Then invite an army of friends and family and dig in.

If you’re in Italy and want to something more than a simple drink at the bar, consider pairing an aperitivo with a winery tour. This is a fantastic way to not only enjoy a glass and some nibbles but also learn about the bubbles you’re enjoying in their native (and often incredibly beautiful) setting. All the wineries mentioned above organize regular winery tours with aperitivo tastings.

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