All you need to know about Italian aperitivo. Its history, what to order for aperitivo in Italy, best drinks and food to enjoy aperitivo back home – Updated 2020
As an Italian ex-pat, when you tell people you left Rome to move to Dublin, you soon get used to the following reaction: ‘Oh you must miss the good weather of Italy!’.
Indeed, I do, but I know I speak for many Italians abroad 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.
Italian Aperitivo is not unknown outside of Italy, however, I never managed to find the atmosphere of the Italian aperitivo anywhere else.
It seems like one of those things that don’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.
Until 2020, aperitivo would be served either as a buffet or as individual plates brought to your table or enjoyed at the ‘bar’ (therefore standing up) however, new health regulations in 2020 have marked the end of apertitivo buffets.
Now, you get served aperitivo at your table: sometimes you can choose your food while, other times, small nibbles such as mini pizzas, olives and nuts as brought to you as a complement to your drink of choice.
‘Aperitivo’ in English usually maintains the Italian sound and spelling or you can say ‘Italian aperitif’.
In this sense, it may seem nothing special.
However, the kind of drinks on offer, the type of bar where this happens and the social atmosphere the surrounds it, makes it quintessentially Italian.
In this guide, I look quickly back at the history of aperitivo in Italy, what to order when enjoying it in Italy and how to recreate the perfect Italian aperitivo at home.
Where is Aperitivo from? A quick history of Italian aperitivo
Aperitivo is now mostly associated with the city of Milan.
However, as a social happening, aperitivo was born in Turin (Torino), 1796.
That year, a wine merchant called Antonio Benedetto Carpano, had an idea.
He learned that an ancient Roman tradition recommended drinking aromatic wine (absinthianum, lit with absinthe) before dinner as a remedy to medical ailments and set to create a drink with characteristics similar to the ancient one.
He chose a fancy bottle for it and gave its new concoction the name ‘vermouth’ (from the German: wermut, absinthe).
Carpano presented his new creation to King Vittorio Emanuele, who immediately became a fan.
The King liked what he defined as that punt e mes (punto e mezzo, a point and a half) of bitterness that he detected in it and this comment quickly did the rounds in circles of Italian aristocracy.
‘Punt e Mes’, the new name for vermuth, was adopted by northern Italian socialites in no time as their drink of choice.
As the Roman tradition suggested, they all adopted the use of having a glass of Punt e Mes before dinner and soon this habit became the 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.
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 and they started being accompanied by a small plate of olives and then by more elaborate snacks, slowly resembling a proper buffet.
Despite this growth, aperitivo always maintained that lightness and that sense of indulgence typical of its aristocratic beginnings and is still now a light extra to be enjoyed before dinner, not a substitute for a meal.
Did you know? You can learn more interesting facts about Italian food here.
How to enjoy aperitivo in Italy: a local’s guide
At what time is aperitivo in Italy?
In Italy, you usually have aperitivo between 7 and 9 pm.
Depending on the establishment, it can be a quick affair with a drink, some crisps, olive and peanuts or a full buffet and can be enjoyed, traditionally, sitting at the bar or sitting down.
In Milan and now more and more often in the rest of Italy too, Aperitivo is not a pretty rich affair with food ranging from grissini col prosciutto (breadsticks with parma ham) to pasta salads, crostini and more.
Popular aperitivo drinks in Italy
There is a vast choice of drinks you can order for Italian aperitivo, both with alcohol and without.
Some of the most popular alcoholic ones are:
- Spritz (soda, prosecco and aperol or campari)
- Bellini (spumante and peach puree) or
- Negroni (gin, vermouth and campari)
- Negroni sbagliato (spumante, vermouth, campari)
- Martini Dry (gin, vermouth, orange zest, green olive)
It is also absolutely acceptable to order white wine or even bottled beer.
Some of the most popular nonalcoholic aperitivo Italian drinks in Italy are:
- Campari soda
- Aperol soda
- Sanbitter bianco or rosso
How to recreate Italian aperitivo at home
When Italy feels unbearably far away, it is also possible to recreate aperitivo at home.
When I do it, I like to stay true to the spirit of aperitivo creating bite size portions and a generous buffet but also love to mix traditional drinks with more original ones.
Ultimately, aperitivo is about coming together around good food so if there is a cocktail like, you can most definitely offer it during your aperitivo with friends!
Drinks that work well are:
- Campari soda
- Aperol soda
- Bottled beer (Italian brands sich as Menabrea and Peroni Nastro Azzurro are good)
- Americano cocktail
- Negroni Cocktail
- Negroni Sbagliato (originally a ‘botched negroni, now so popular to be a classic itself)
- White wine
Foods that work well to make Italian aperitivo at home are:
- Roasted peanuts
- Assorted bruschette (fresh tomatoes, olive pates, etc)
- Bread sticks and parma ham
- Prosciutto e melone
- Pizzette (mini pizza, usually on puff pastry)
- Mini mozzarella balls
- Cold frittata (in slices)
- Italian sausage roll
- Vegetable pies (in slices)
- Pasta salad
- Insalata di riso
Italian aperitivo inspiration
I hope you enjoyed this guide to Italian aperitivo and gave you some good ideas to recreate it at home. Buon appetito!