A Brief History of Aperitivo

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Italians are known for taking their time with pretty much anything and especially so if it involves food or wine. Senza fretta they’ll often say… without rush. That’s why it comes as no surprise that Italian happy hour often lasts for two to three hours, sometimes even the whole night. Although the concept of aperitivo is very relaxed, you’ll still see handsome crowds in their best attire spreading onto the streets. That’s another fun part of being in Italy – you are never overdressed, and aperitivo is the perfect time to release your inner Italian, wear that new dress and enjoy la bella vita.

The original idea of aperitivo was to increase your appetite before a main meal, to eat just enough to digest the alcohol whilst leaving enough room for dinner. Nowadays, many Italians still prefer little nibbles and smaller platters over extensive buffets, although these are becoming more popular amongst younger Italians. For the discerning tourist, the aperitivo is a modern-day travel hack – allowing you to enjoy a cultural mainstay on a minimal budget.

A wide spread of finger food and glasses of sweet wine have been popular since Roman times, but the modern version of aperitivo is believed to have started in the 18th century in Turin. It was born out of the sudden popularity of vermouth, Carpano vermouth to be precise, that became the drink for all budgets. The combination of herbs in vermouth helps to increase the feeling of hunger, which could also be the reason for the beginning of an early evening aperitivo culture. The word aperitivo comes from the Italian verb aprire, meaning to open. You’re “opening” your stomach for the main meal.

In the 19th century, many lower-ABV bitters came onto the market, and with the use of soda water, cocktails like the Americano were created. The word aperitivo can also be used to describe various drinks enjoyed pre-dinner. In addition to vermouth and Campari, traditional drinks include Negroni, and a range of other red or orange bitters, such as Aperol and Ramazzotti, which are all served with soda, Prosecco or orange juice. Today, aperitivo drinks can be anything from a glass of wine to a Mojito or even a G&T, although many Italians believe aperitivo drinks should be the colour of sunset (thus the popularity of an Aperol Spritz).

Today aperitivo takes place early evening, usually between 6 and 9pm, but there are some exceptions. It can consist of appetisers such as olives, crisps, crostini, cheese and cured meats, or it may be more filling, with pasta dishes, salads, lasagne and other warm foods. Some venues simply give you a small bowl or two of snacks to go with the drink, but others serve a buffet from which you help yourself. The plates are kept small and the point is not to stack up the food, but to revisit the buffet more often.

It is not unusual for people to spread outside the venue, especially during the summer months. Some venues don’t have much seating outdoors, so you can expect to sit on the kerb or on a wall – this is a very Italian way of enjoying an aperitivo as it is a chilled occasion. When in Rome…

Make it yourself

Americano – Equal parts of Campari and sweet vermouth combined over ice in a tumbler and top up with soda.

Aperol Spritz – Combine 3 parts of Prosecco, 2 parts of Aperol, 1 part of soda over ice in a wine glass and garnish with a slice of orange, or do it like in Veneto and add an olive.

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