“Salute!” — the clink-clink of glasses resounds like church bells throughout Italy as the late afternoon begins to dissolve towards evening. It’s aperitivo time – that glorious hour or two (or three) when the busy-ness of the day is set aside for drinks, nibbles and elbow rubbing with friends.
But you won’t see any neon signs glowing with “2 for 1” or “Half Price Drinks” — this is not your hometown Happy Hour. The bella figura of socializing, aperitivo time in Italy is a ritual of passage, even if we’re talking about the passage of a few hours.
The modern structure of aperitivo is somewhat of a new-kid-on-the-block phenomenon. Rewind to 1786 in the city of Turin. The story goes that Antonio Benedetto Carpano created vermouth, a low alcohol white wine infused with botanicals. This lighter tonic was seen as an enjoyable way to nudge the appetite and prepare the digestive tract for the evening’s meal. In fact, the word aperitivo derives from the Latin aperitivum, meaning to open up. Whether Carpano was actually the father of vermouth is however up for debate, as many believe he was more the marketing genius behind its popularity. And if that’s the case, he was a good one: the ritual of a dose of vermouth or other drink and unwinding after work quickly found favor and spread across Italy.
As with preferred pasta sauce or the crimp style of tortellini, the region in which you partake of aperitivo can make a difference in style. Northern Italy, in particular Turin and Milan, are considered the heavy weights of aperitivo creation and presentation. Bars proudly offer up lavish spreads of stuzzichini – what we might call heavy hors d’oeuvres – that can include an assortment of cured meats, cheese, vegetables, bread, and even pasta and small pizzas. There’s no happy hour style discount on a drink here, however, and prices are set to factor in the food offerings. But the flipside is you can nibble to your heart’s content…and are actually encouraged to do so! This method of aperitivo has become so popular in northern regions that many city dwellers bypass cena (dinner) altogether, choosing instead to satisfy their hunger with what’s cleverly called apericena.
Moving south down the peninsula, aperitivo style simplifies; these quasi-buffets are less popular. You might stumble across a simple affettati misti of cured meats and local cheese in a larger bar, but the standard aperitivo is more likely accompanied by a small assortment of olives, chips, or other snackables that are finger ready.
The ritual of aperitivo is flexible, of course; however, even the anti-traditionalist would agree that certain drinks qualify as “musts” for this twilight time of day. So just which cocktails make the short list?
Venice is credited as the birthplace of one of Italy’s most popular aperitivo refreshements: the Spritz. During Austrian rule over Venice, the Hapsburg soldiers found local Venetian wines too strong for their taste. Solution? Temper them a bit with a squirt (spritzen in German) of bubbly water… and alles ist gut.
But the story doesn’t end there. Aperol, a low alcohol blend of oranges, herbs, roots, and other secret ingredients, was created in the early 1900’s in Milan, and eventually found its way as an indispensable part of a Venetian Spritz during the 1950’s. A highly effective marketing campaign got the word out, and the Spritz, now a combination of prosecco, Aperol or Campari, and seltzer, found fame. Many American bars currently serve a classic Spritz, thanks to another successful international campaign upon acquisition of the Aperol brand by Gruppo Campari, makers of Campari aperitivo.
And speaking of Campari, I’d be amiss not to mention its stand-alone acclaim as a revered Italian aperitivo. Developed in the late 1800’s by the young Gaspare Campari at Milan’s famous Bar Basso, the recipe is a complex blend of up to 60 spices, herbs, and fruits steeped in alcohol. Brilliantly red, the trademark color of Campari was actually the result of a dye made from crushed insects – a bit of trivia that I’d guess wasn’t a big part of their marketing strategy! This practice ended in 2006, however. A low alcohol “bitter” concocted to bolster digestion, Campari is still a quintessential Italian beverage and mixer.
The Negroni is another celebrity of the aperitivo stage. Proper etiquette of 1920’s Italy decreed a pre-dinner tipple be tamed with the addition of soda water. While on a visit to his native Florence, Count Camilio Negroni, an illustrious fellow whose credits include a stint as an American Wild West show clown, wanted something heftier in his “Americano” cocktail. Rather than settle for the standard combo of Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda water, Negroni requested gin in place of the water – and the Negroni cocktail was born. The drink rocketed to fame, and its following today in Italy and abroad has reached an almost cult-like status.
Like a good pizza, cocktails come in any number of variations, and one of the better known is the Negroni Sbagliato – the bungled Negroni. Legend says that a Milanese bartender accidentally grabbed a sparkling white wine rather than gin to add to a Negroni that was under construction, and the results were applauded rather than tossed down the sink. This mistake is one of the most popular aperitivi today.
Of course, if combining various bitters and other libations just doesn’t excite your digestive juices, don’t fret over looking out of place when you belly up to an Italian bar come aperitivo time. A simple prosecco, vermouth, or Campari over ice are perfectly acceptable drinks for the ritual and enjoyed by many in preparation for the evening meal.
Any season, any day, anywhere – the art of aperitivo is as ingrained a part of Italian culture as a multi-course meal or an evening passeggiata. Spritz (or whatever suits your fancy) in hand, the mind is able to put aside the day’s worries and relax with friends, while each sip prepares the body and soul for the satisfaction and satiation to come. Choose your potion, raise your glass… cin cin to aperitivo!