If I could import just one thing from Italy, it wouldn’t be a Dolce & Gabbana wardrobe or an Alfa Romeo sportscar or even a whole leg of Parma ham. In fact, I wouldn’t pick an object at all. Rather, I’d bring over the institution of aperitivo.
In Italy, the term “aperitivo” — apéritif in French, cocktail in English — signals much more than “happy hour.” While Italian liquors and previously obscure amari are starting to receive a lot of attention in the craft-cocktail renaissance, their context remains a bit of a mystery here. As wonderful as a bracing shot of Fernet Branca or a well-made Americano taste on their own, simply bellying up to the bar elides half of the picture — the food half.
Aperitivo is the wonderful marriage of the two, the effusive cocktail party that happens every day at bars across Italy during those relaxed, possibility-filled hours between work and dinner. Rather than offering discounted drinks, Italian bars raise their prices between 6 and 9 p.m., sometimes quite a lot. The purchase of a €10 Negroni, however, entitles you to pick up a flimsy plastic plate and head over to the buffet as many times as you like, sampling the bar’s selection of appetizers, generally known as stuzzichini (“toothpicks”) but, in Venice, as cicheti.
The edible display can be stunning. Tiny squares of pizza, bruschetta, cooked greens, salumi, vegetable salads, marinated white beans, pasta, grissini, cheeses, polpette, grilled meats on skewers — the variety and breadth of some bars’ aperitivo offerings is truly incredible.
So is the scene. Businessmen in improbably impeccable suits shoulder in next to dreadlocked bikers, still improbably impeccable (this is Italy, after all), to grab one more scoop of that agrodolce cabbage with anchovies or snag a few more bruschette. Tiny women in achingly high stilettos tuck in to plates buckling under the weight of all that linguini. Ice-cold Moretti flows freely.
The aperitivo ritual, I think, perfectly illuminates the difference between American and Italian attitudes toward eating and drinking. In Italy, food and alcohol are so firmly linked that ordering an alcoholic drink at any time of day elicits at the very least a small bowl of supplemental peanuts, if not a platter of focaccia and prosciutto. Drinking without at least a small snack is practically unheard of, unless you’re having a digestivo after you’ve already eaten.
At aperitivo, the emphasis is placed even more strongly on food; it’s difficult, and expensive, to overdrink. Rather than leaving happy hour with a lightheaded buzz and an empty stomach, Italians are much more likely to leave wondering if they’ll have any appetite for dinner.
The American attitude toward happy hour — as a time to knock back a few as quickly as possible, before that looming 6 p.m. cutoff — contrasts starkly with the more relaxed Italian approach. While cultural norms regarding alcohol are changing, especially among young people, “going out” just to drink is quite unusual in Italy, and public drunkenness is both uncommon and firmly frowned upon.
This is not to say that there isn’t a robust drinking culture. After all, Italy is practically synonymous with wine, and produces a vast range of spirits as well. The bitter flavors of many Italian liquors are considered to be appetite enhancers and digestive aids. Low-alcohol cocktails, such as Campari and soda or Aperol with Prosecco, are very popular at aperitivo, both because they enhance the food they’re consumed with and because they’re not strong enough to dull the senses and distract from the main event: eating.
You can easily imitate the Italian aperitivo experience at home. Aperitivo is all about simplicity and ease, and it’s a terrific model for a party, especially a summer one: refreshing, low-proof drinks and uncomplicated snacks. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
When I have people over to dine, my immediate impulse is to embark on an elaborate three-day cooking spree that dirties every dish in the house and requires an Excel spreadsheet to manage the shopping list. This is not what aperitivo is about. Aperitivo is for socializing, looking fabulous, and enjoying the late afternoon.
This applies equally to the drinks and the food. Campari and soda, a glass of chilled vermouth, even a well-made Negroni — these are not fussy drinks. All it takes to make a classic Negroni, after all, is one part Campari, one part gin, and one part sweet vermouth gently stirred in a glass full of ice and topped with a twist or wedge of orange.
If you feel like turning on your range, keep it simple: toast some bruschetta in the oven and slather a variety of savories on top, or make a simple pasta dish on the stovetop, such as gemelli with pesto or rigatoni with raw chopped tomato. Throw in a veggie or two, maybe some cheese, and you’re set. Even just a plate of sliced and salted tomatoes with basil, braised chicory, or gratinéed onions with breadcrumbs can make aperitivo special without making it exhausting.
Many aperitivi offer a stunning array of choices, some with four separate buffet banquets themed around different ingredients. For those of us without staff and professional kitchens, this is out of reach. Variety at home might mean pizza made with three different toppings, or a charcuterie board with two different kinds of salumi and two different kinds of cheese. Even a small variety of tastes, textures, and types of food will go a long way: if nothing else, get the five different kinds of bulk olives you’ve been eyeballing at the grocery store and a jar of artichoke hearts.
One of the best parts about aperitivo is that it’s a serve-yourself affair. Throw some ice in a bucket for the drinks, have a stack of small plates and napkins next to the food, and let guests serve themselves. Disposable plastic plates are traditional at the bar, but plastic makes me feel guilty, so I use small, expendable ceramic plates from Goodwill that I won’t miss if they hit the patio.
Aperitivo is for everyone, from the very old to the highchair set. In Italy, whole extended families go to aperitivo together. It’s an inexpensive meal out, plus the variety means that everybody can find something they like to eat.
While the food is a big focus at aperitivo, socializing is just as important. It’s easy to forget in the face of all that culinary abundance, but Italy has a history of political upheaval, war, poverty, natural disaster, famine, and oppression that stretches back thousands of years. Food hasn’t always been something taken for granted on the peninsula, and social connections have been (and frankly still are) the most reliable source of support in most Italians’ lives. These ties need to be nurtured. Plus, gathering al tavolo with the people you care about is what makes life worth living, plain and simple.
When the weather permits, Italian restaurants spill out onto sidewalks, piazzas, and alleyways — sometimes even expanding all the way across streets, making it hard to tell which table belongs to which restaurant. Nobody wants to eat inside if they can help it. Buon appetito!
Margarett Waterbury is an Oregon-based writer, editor, and employee at Gathering Together Farm.
Related recipe: Basic Bruschetta; recipe: Bruschetta with Tomatoes and Olives; recipe: Bruschetta with Zucchini, Anchovies, and Mint; recipe: Braised Chicory; recipe: Bruschetta with Bresaola, Arugula, and Ricotta
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