The Italian Aperitivo

A New Habit Worth Adopting

When one thinks about Italy, it generally conjures images of beautiful, tan, and well dressed people, historic architecture, fast cars, pristine coastlines and good food. Certain facets of Italian culture are only well known by Italians and insiders who have lived in deep cover among these loud speaking, lovable people.

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Despite what you may imagine, this is not commonplace in Italy. Photo by T.P. Holland under CC.

A common habit of the Italian people, practiced for the sake of hanging out with one’s friends and enjoying good food and drink, is the Italian aperitivo. Many people have heard of an aperitivo, even if they aren’t quite sure what it is. Those who have partaken in an aperitivo or two have surely been disappointed upon returning from their travels to realize it is either nonexistent in their homeland or it is executed poorly. A social habit by nature, without an aperitivo culture, there really is no aperitivo.

What is the Aperitivo?

Most people recognize an aperitif as a late afternoon drink and perhaps snack. If you aren’t one of those people, hold on to your pants because your life is about to change…for the better. In Italy, dinner time usually isn’t until 8 o’clock. Anything earlier than 8pm is considered an “early dinner” or an aperitivo, with prime aperitivo time falling between 6pm and 9pm. Although the Italian aperitivo is characterized as a late-afternoon “snack”, many places go far beyond the realm of snacks and dive right into the land of buffets. Aperitivos are commonly found at bars, which, in Italy, are a place where people of all ages go to get a drink of any kind, from hot tea to a glass of wine, and are a decent place to order a sandwich, pizza or other simple food. When you arrive at a bar for aperitivo, go to the counter and order a drink, usually listed on the menu under aperitivi, as not all drinks are considered appropriate at this time. Typical beverages considered aperitivi are wines (whites are more common than reds), prosecco, spritz, Aperol, Campari, crodino, coca cola, or bitters.

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The spritz, a classic drink from Venice,

Once you have your drink, the fun begins. Your bartender will either serve you a platter with small bites on it or you will find yourself in front of a table piled high with countless dishes of not-so-small bites. Different bars have different systems so it’s helpful to find out in advance what the system is at the place you are going. Smaller bars typically bring you an assortment of mini sandwiches, peanuts, olives, charcuterie and cheeses but some will offer as little as a small dish of potato chips. If you want a serious aperitivo experience, look for the larger bars that set out an entire buffet table with foods like stewed calamari, frittata, risotto, charcuterie stuffed sandwiches, cured sardines, local cheeses, miniature pizzas, savory puff pastries and all types of breads.

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A buffet-style aperitivo in Florence.

It is easy to see why the Italian aperitivo is so popular; it’s a great way to spend time with the people you love and, generally speaking, you only pay for the drink you order, albeit at a slightly inflated price. The bonus of buying a drink during aperitivo time is that it grants you access to enough food to fill you up for a couple of hours, or in some cases, until the next morning.  If you are selective in choosing a bar for aperitivo, you could very well end up somewhere that the food quality is just as high as what you would find in a proper restaurant. When it comes to choosing a style of aperitivo, people will elect to go out for the buffet and, although it breaks with tradition, sometimes skip dinner altogether or they will go for a drink with something smaller like a bowl of peanuts and olives.

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A classy aperitivo spread in Milan. Photo by Fabio under Creative Commons license.

Finding a Place that Serves Aperitivo

You may be wondering, if you are traveling on your own, it’s your first time in Italy and you don’t speak the language, how are you supposed to figure out where to get a good aperitivo? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Italian wisdom tells us that if you want to find the most fantastic, hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Italy, you should follow the old people around and eat where they eat. When you are looking for a good place to enjoy an aperitivo, the opposite is true; in this case you want to follow young and technologically savvy locals. The younger generations in Italy have finally learned to take advantage of the internet and refer to apps and websites like Yelp for the latest aperitivo intel. This means they know when a new bar is opening or if any particular bar is going to offer something extraordinary, and likely cheap; don’t be fooled by Italian youth’s flashy clothes and smart phones, they don’t have lots of money, they spend it all on aforementioned flashy clothes and phones.

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You may not know where to go for aperitivo, but we bet they do. Photo: left by The Purple Pants, right by Lucca Violetto both under CC.

Of course, if you have found ParTASTE, you are relatively tech savvy yourself and are surely familiar with restaurant websites and apps, but, you don’t speak Italian, remember? So, since we are assuming you are at a disadvantage on the language front, and you might not find any trendy youth to stealthily follow around, let’s talk a little bit about how you could inquire as to where good aperitivi spots are in the area. The most obvious option would be to ask a hotel concierge where to go. But maybe the concierge you talk to is old and boring, or just doesn’t recommend anything that sounds appealing to you. If the concierge provides no useful information and you don’t have any other english-speaking locals at your disposal, you will need to do as the proverbial Romans do and speak their language.

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Some bars are hard to spot on street level, keep an eye out alongside the buildings for signage. Photo by Metro Centric under CC.

Find someone who looks like they appreciate food, you’re in Italy, that shouldn’t be difficult, and ask, Dove posso trovare un buon aperitivo? (Where can I find a good aperitvo?) It’s more than likely that the congenial Italian you are talking to will name a few good bars in the area. In any given city you should find no shortage of local bars, and if that’s not the case, then you should check your map and make sure you didn’t wander into Switzerland by mistake. Note whichever places are recommended to you in whatever way you see fit and then thank your new friend and be on your way, the aperitivo waits for no one.

Aperitivo Aftermath

After enjoying an aperitivo or two, you will realize why this is such a ritual in Italy. The only problem with the aperitivo is that it’s a little too easy a habit to adopt, and you may experience aperitivo withdrawals upon your return home. Without any local bars, you know, the kind with food that serve children as often as the of-drinking-age crowd, where are you to find an aperitivo at home? Sure, there is happy hour, but it’s just not the same, and you have to pay for that food. So what’s a culturally enlightened person to do?

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Photo via Fabulous Fabs under Creative Commons license.

As you’ve probably realized, food and friends are the key elements of the aperitivo ritual. We’re betting you have both food and friends at home, otherwise, you probably should have reconsidered leaving Italy. If you are experiencing aperitivo withdrawals, we suggest you pull yourself together and host your very own aperitivo. The food itself is all very simple to make and there is lots of room for creativity. For example, on any given sandwich plater, you might find 4 different kinds of sandwiches, and you’ll really never know what they are until you throw one into your mouth. Dare to be creative when you hold an aperitivo at your house! While the aperitivo may be inherent in the Italian culture, you can adopt it as your own by serving the foods and drinks that you want, there are no strict rules on how to do this. If you don’t know where to begin, check out our Italian recipes for inspiration. Above all, remember that the spirt of the aperitivo is all about spending time with those you love while doing something that everyone loves to do: eat and drink!