Once upon a time, a pre-dinner drink in Italy meant a swiftly served aperitif with a bowl of nuts or potato chips and some fat green olives.
It is often still done this
way, but in the fashionable neighbourhoods of Turin,
Milan and Rome, the tradition has
morphed into a nightly phenomenon of complimentary buffet spreads so lavish
that the three courses that are supposed to follow are almost a thing of the
Aperitivo drinks are often the establishment’s proudest accomplishment and
based around traditional aperitifs or fortified wines. Menu stalwarts include
Punt e Mes on the rocks, a Negroni (Campari, Martini Rosso vermouth and gin),
the Americano (Campari, Martini Rosso vermouth and soda), or a Spritz (Aperol
or Campari and prosecco). Prices are routinely hoisted to take in the price of
the “free” food, and range from around 4 euro to 15 euro per drink at some of
Milan’s more stellar hotels. The same flat rate charge will often be applied to
beer, wine, analcolici (virgin) cocktails and even mineral water.
The cocktail hour stretches
into three – generally from 6 pm to 9 pm, though bars are often empty before 7 pm.
What can you expect
to find on your plate come Campari o’clock?
Carbs take centre stage at humbler bars, with endless variations on the pizza,
crostini and bruschetta theme. Further up the food chain you may come across salumi
(cured meats), local cheeses, suppli (fried rice balls), freshly
cooked potato chips, gratinée peppers and grilled eggplant. Top-end places will
rotate a number of dishes, including sushi-grade raw fish, oysters, vitello
tonnato (cold veal topped with tuna mayonnaise), barley or couscous
salads, cauliflower or cardoon fritters, and a few platters of hot pasta doing
Word to the wise: Italians
are not shy about going back to the buffet for seconds on the strength of one
Where it all began
The stately capital of Piedmont,
Turin, claims to have come up with the aperitivo idea. It is a boast at
least based in historical fact: vermouth – a fortified wine infused with herbs
– was invented there in 1786. The city has its fair share of evocative historic
cafes (such as Piazza San Carlo’s Caffe
San Carlo or Caffe
Torino) as well as many 21st-century bars. Piazza Vittoria Veneto’s Drogheria
attracts a young crowd for a healthy help-yourself spread – faro salads,
frittata, paella – and Stevie Wonder on vinyl.
Just north of the
Quadrilatero Romano, Piazza Emanuele Filiberto is a hip but pretty little
square with several options including Francophone Pastis,
traditionalist Arancia di
Mezzanotte and the delightful Tre
Galli. The latter bucks the all-out, all-inclusive trend: instead,
focaccia, artisan Piedmontese cheeses and cold cuts can be had for 5 euros,
with wine remaining at very reasonable a la carte prices.
Going over the top
While lacking the historical upper hand, Milan’s aperitivo scene is equally, if
not even more, over the top. Bars such as the Parco Sempione district’s Roialto
pride themselves on conspicuous consumption – waiters shuck oysters to order,
flip bespoke omelettes, and saw your choice of cheese from enormous wheels of
the stuff. At noon in Magenta they pile
the luxe offerings high, while there’s a more laidback vibe at places such as Isola’s Frida, where the emphasis is more
on fresh salads and pizza.
For a piece of aperitivo
history, and a design-centric but friendly crowd, head to Bar Basso, just north of Porta Venezia. In
the ‘60s, the Negroni’s lighter little sister, the Sbagliato, was born here
when a barman accidentally substituted spumante for the customary gin (hence
the “mistake” of the name).
While aperitivo offerings
get more perfunctory the further south you go, Rome’s scene is quietly
thriving. Gems like Trastevere’s Freni
e Frizioni depart from Italian staples with fresh Eastern Med mezze, while
La Mescita offers up wonderful slabs of pecorino and fresh mussels to pick at.
So forget all
preconceptions of happy hours past with their watered-down margaritas and
two-for-one deals. You may hand over a few more euros for a single glass of the
good stuff, but with dinner and a bella figura floorshow thrown in, aperitivo
is not only a not-to-be missed Italian tradition, it is an absolute bargain.
The article 'Aperitivo time is Italy’s happiest hour' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.