As an Italian expat, when you tell people you left Rome to move to Dublin, you soon get used to the following reaction: ‘Oh you must miss the sun/the food/the good weather of Italy’. Indeed, I do (although a lot less than people might think), but I know I speak for many Italians expat when I say that there is one thing that I miss more than the good weather and this thing is: the tradition of l’aperitivo.
Aperitivo is not unknown outside of Italy, but no matter how good the intention of the organiser is, I never managed to find the atmosphere of the Italian apertivo anywhere else. It seems like one of those things that doesn’t export well, despite the apparent simplicity of the format.
Aperitivo is, in essence, the tradition of meeting up before the evening meal for a pre-dinner drink and some small plates of food.
In this sense, it is not significantly different from having a pint at you local after work, but the kind of drink usually ordered, the type of bar where this happens and the social atmosphere the surrounds it, makes it quintessentially Italian. I think its history explains why.
Aperitivo is now mostly associated with the city of Milan, but as a social happening it was born in Torino, its date of birth being 1796. That year a wine merchant called Antonio Benedetto Carpano had the idea of creating a drink inspired by an ancient Roman tradition that recommended aromatic wine (absinthianum, with absinthe) before dinner as a remedy to medical ailments. He created a wine with characteristics similar to the ancient one and he bottled in an elegant one litre bottle. He then baptised it ‘vermouth’ (from the German: wermut, absinthe). Carpano was clearly very good at taking care of his own PR, because after creating this drink he presented it to no less than King Vittorio Emanuele, who immediately became a fan. What the King liked, was what he defined as that punt e mes (punto e mezzo, a point and a half) of bitterness that he detected in it. The drink was, from that moment on, called Punt e Mes and was adopted by northern Italian socialites in no time as their drink of choice. Like the Roman tradition suggested, they all adopted the use of having a glass of punt a mes before dinner and soon this habit became reason for social pre- dinner gatherings in the most stylish houses and venues in town.
Because of this success, many drink producers decided to try their luck at quenching the thirst of the socialites: I guess their surnames (Ramazzotti, Martini, Campari) stand as testimony of their success!
From Torino, the use of meeting up for aperitivo soon spread to Milano, where in 1900 meeting up for aperitivo became a real social phenomenon. The number of available drinks became wider, both in alcoholic and non alcoholic form, they started being accompanied by a small plate of olives and then by more elaborate snacks, but aperitivo always maintained that lightness and that sense of indulgence typical of its aristocratic beginnings.
If you are intrigued and want to try aperitivo, here is how to enjoy it like an Italian:
1. Have aperitivo before dinner (7 – 9 pm) and tuck into the generous buffet, but don’t use it to replace your meal. Use it as a started, but try go for quality over quantity: dinner is awaiting you
2. Choose quality over quantity also for your drinks, especially if you go for something like a negroni…
3. Try to move away from ordering a pint of beer (although a glass of chilled nastro azzurro is always peasant) and taste some traditional aperitivo specialties such as
Spritz (soda, prosecco and aperol or campari)
Bellini (spumante and peach puree) or
Negroni (gin, vermouth and campari) and its variations such as americano or negroni sbagliato
4. Avoid as much as possible spots that say ‘happy hour’. Like the best restaurants in Italy, the best bars don’t need to advertise to tourist and you sure don’t need to look for advertising blackboards to spot an aperitivo place: let the flashy crowd sipping drinks from elaborate glasses be your guide