Hear “aperitivo in Italy,” and you might think “happy hour.” That’s almost right. But it’s not the whole story.
Yes, aperitivo is like a cocktail hour. But it’s one where the food tends to involve much more than the peanuts or potato chips you’d get back home. And, unlike American “happy hours,” it has nothing to do with discounts (there aren’t any) or getting drunk with coworkers (che brutta figura!). (For those reasons, if you ever see an aperitivo in Italy advertised as “cocktail hour,” run the other way. Those words mean it caters to tourists, not locals!).
Instead, for Italians, aperitivo is a glorious couple of hours—generally between 7pm and 9pm—when they can relax post-work over a glass of wine or Campari and some snacks. Since most people eat lunch around 1pm or 2pm, and dinner around 9pm, it’s also a good way to re-start the old metabolism to work up an appetite for dinner.
For visitors, hitting up an aperitivo can be just as useful. It’s 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” of hunger while waiting for that 9pm meal!
Want to enjoy an aperitivo in Italy? Here are some things you should know!
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Italian food customs are very regional. That goes for aperitivo, too! Milan is, hands-down, the best place for aperitivo in Italy. This is where the bars are buzzing and the selection of both food and drinks for aperitivo is excellent.
The further south you go, the harder it is to find a “proper” aperitivo—but the trend is catching on. Rome, Florence, even Naples all now have 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!
You don’t get a discount on drinks during aperitivo. Instead, you usually get a little “bonus,” like a plate of snacks brought with your drink, or access to a buffet of food. Prices range, of course, but in general, an aperitivo including food and a glass of wine costs between 8 and 10 euros in Italy’s major cities.
Snacks for aperitivo can be anything at all!
Every bar differs. Although we wouldn’t really consider this a proper aperitivo, some places bring just some olives and potato chips with your drink. More commonly for aperitivo will be a plate of small nibbles like bruschetta, focaccia, or even meats and cheeses.
Our favorite, though, are the aperitivo buffets, where you can choose yourself from an array of food that might be everything from light pastas to salads. Especially when serving yourself, though, just remember that…
Seeing an aperitivo buffet, it can be very tempting—especially if you’re hungry, or on a budget—to load up a couple of plates and tuck in as if you’re at an early dinner. If you do, be prepared for some strange, or even dirty, looks!
When faced with an aperitivo buffet, Italians will generally get a small plate of nibbles… and then pick at them over the course of the next hour, sometimes even managing to leave a bit behind. Taking too much food, or tucking into it like it’s your last meal, is seen as somewhat rude—and not really the point of aperitivo.
Also, as a rule of thumb, one drink means one plate of food. If you want more food, buy another drink!
Aperitivo drinks are divided into two categories: alcolici (alcoholic), and analcolici (non-alcoholic / “virgin”) drinks. Analcolici drinks can range from a soft drink like Coca Cola to delicious fruit juice cocktails (aperitivo analcolico alla frutta – pictured below) to a non-alcoholic bitter like Sanbitter.
If the aperitivo’s liquor selection is extensive, a wide selection of cocktails will be available as aperitivo drinks and you can find anything from Manhattans to Cosmopolitans to Mojitos. For many Italians, Campari is their drink of choice for aperitivo, and it forms the base of many traditional Italian aperitivo drinks.
Here are some “traditional” aperitivo drinks based on bitter alcohols like Campari and Aperol: the Americano, the Spritz, and the Negroni.
A Negroni is gin, vermouth and Campari, and garnished with an orange peel as in my picture.
There are other ways to make a Negroni, too. A Negroni sbagliato (“wrong”) substitutes the gin with spumante brut (dry, sparkling white wine). Sometimes they can really get it wrong. When I ordered a Negroni sbagliato recently, I realized it was a Negroni sbagliato sbagliato as instead of spumante he had added vodka, which made it a Negroski.
The Americano starts out like the Negroni but instead of using gin, soda is added to the cocktail in a tall glass that lightens up the cocktail quite a bit.
Many regions have their own aperitivo specialty (when I was in Palermo, Zibibbo was the drink to try) and a drink that is popular in the Veneto is starting to get popular elsewhere, too.
The Spritz. Soda, prosecco / sparkling white wine and usually Campari or Aperol make this aperitivo drink unique.
Wine is always an acceptable aperitivo drink, and sometimes much cheaper than a cocktail. If you like sweet or sparkling wines, aperitivo is the time to drink them: Prosecco (sparkling white wine), Spumante (a sweet or dry sparkling white wine), Fragolino (a sweet sparkling red wine), Brachetto (sweet, sparkling red wine) are all excellent aperitivo drinks.
The Bellini, invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice, is a good choice if you like prosecco and peaches but it is not always widely available if the bar doesn’t stock peach juice or puree.
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