25 Apr “Doing” the Aperitivo
The aperitivo is a moderately alcoholic drink meant to be had before the meal, usually accompanied by a snack. Although it’s technically a starter to the meal (in Latin, aperire means “to open”), the aperitivo is much more than an appetizer – it’s a distinct social event, a ritual which the Italians refer to it as “fare l’aperitivo” (“doing” the aperitivo).
It would be impossible to talk about aperitivo without first talking about Italian bars and how they are a part of people’s daily routine. As bars open, early in the morning, they operate as coffee shops serving breakfast (cappuccino and croissant being the most popular). During the lunch break, bars turn into sandwich joints offering fast meal options (e.g. grilled and not grilled panini). Right after lunch, bars go back to being coffee shops serving the traditional post-meal espresso. Finally, as the workday ends, bars operate as actual bars as they start serving the pre-dinner aperitivo.
Many bars, however, offer much more than peanuts and chips with their aperitivo drinks. If you happen to be wandering around the streets of a big Italian city* around 6 to 8 pm, look for busy coffee bars – behind the crowds, you’ll notice a luscious buffet of appetizers. The reason for the popularity is that the food is complimentary with the purchase of an aperitivo drink (though there may be a slight surcharge on the drink). You can find everything from cheese and cold cuts, to olives and pickles, to spreads and salads, to first courses (like gnocchi or ravioli kept warm in chafing dishes), to sides (like roasted potatoes and veggies).
Despite the generous offer, most Italians still want to have dinner after the aperitivo, so they don’t overfill their plates. It’s not uncommon that they go for seconds, but they try not to exceed the amount that they feel fair, based on the overall amount the paid.
As for the actual aperitivo drinks, the choices the most popular with the Italians are based on bitters: Campari or Aperol, either straight on ice, with sparkling white wine (e.g. Prosecco), or as part of cocktails such as Negroni (gin, Campari and sweet red vermouth) or Spritz (Aperol, sparkling wine and soda water). As for the non-alcoholic aperitivo drinks, the most popular choices include San Pellegrino Bitter and Crodino, both containing herbal extracts that give them a bitter aftertaste.
*The tradition of the aperitivo is especially strong in Milan, and, within Milan, it’s the strongest in the Navigli district.