This pre-dinner Italian ritual is known by many names: Aperitivo, Aperitif and Apericena. Which is correct? I have heard all of the variations while living in Italy and have found Apertivo or Apericena most common. One thing I am certain of, this Italian tradition is one of my favorites!
I’m certain many Italians may cringe when I say the following, but if you’re American or from an Anglo country, think Happy Hour or Cocktail Hour as a concept. There is a difference between the Italian Aperitivo and the Anglo Happy Hour, but that’s as close as I can get with a generic relate-able description.
I find the Italian Aperitivo charming. The general hours for Aperitivo are between 6-8pm (can vary by region). It’s a time to relax, socialize and get your palate and stomach warmed up for dinner.
The Italian word ‘Aperto’ means to ‘open, begin’. The Italian word ‘cena’ means dinner. With an Aperitivo, aperitif or apericena, you are preparing your palate and stomach for dinner later on. That’s the basic premise!
I’ve heard some people call this ritual as ‘Aperitif’ but I don’t think that’s accurate. An Aperitif is a type of cocktail/drink, whereas ‘Aperitivo’ or ‘Apericena’ is the event of both having the food & drink.
Aperitivo is more about food than drinking.
The ritual varies by region, but in general, you order a drink at a regular price and you get complimentary snacks to go with your drink. The ‘snacks’ also vary by region, restaurant and cafe – it can be a little plate of bruschetta and pate, maybe a mini platter of some prosciutto, a small pizza to share, cheese and olives, or it could be buffet style where you get to fill your plate with a variety of pasta salads, cous-cous, breadsticks, fried little goodies, etc. It varies greatly, but whatever you may get with your drink, it is a nice way to nibble on something while relaxing after a long day.
My favorite part of the aperitivo, especially in a smaller town or village, you will see the locals come out at this hour – young and old, meet with their friends, sip their cocktail, nibble on some food and then head on home to cook their big dinner.
Typically, cocktails, beer or a prosecco are sipped at aperitivo.
Cocktails are not a dinner item, they’re for aperitivo time. The Spritz is a popular cocktail for aperitivo. It’s prosecco (sparkling Italian wine), either Campari or Aperol and a dash of soda water – served on ice with a straw.
Campari/Aperol is a herb based liquor with a slightly bitter, orange flavor. Campari Spritz is more common in the Rome area and the Aperol Spritz, in the northern regions like Milan and Venice.
The cost of an Aperitivo is also variable based on the region.
When I lived in Rome, on average an aperitivo cost 10-12€. (Rome sets a special Aperitivo price, it costs more than the normal price of a glass of wine or cocktail) In Rome, I found it more common to have a buffet of the carbs (as I call it). The buffets have mostly cold foods: couscous, pasta salad, breads. Sometimes if you’re lucky, you’ll get some cheese and grilled vegetables to add some variety. In Rome you do need to be careful since some places will charge you the full aperitivo charge if you order a second glass of wine or cocktail.
In smaller towns and even Milan, I found the aperitivi to be better – food quality and cost wise. Unlike Rome, the charge typically is the cost of whatever the wine or cocktail you order, and the food is complimentary. Up north it is more common for small plates to be served at your table. The plates could include a nice mix of prosciutto, cheeses, olives, breads, sometimes some fried little shrimp, and finger sandwiches. Once place in my town brings small freshly oven baked pizzas – yum!
Even ethnic restaurants take part in this Italian tradition. In Milan, I went to a Japanese restaurant for a drink around 7pm and received a lovely bento box of goodies along with my cocktail. By Lake Como there is a Sushi restaurant that puts out a beautiful spread: sushi, edamame, tempura, asian noodles and seaweed salad. I order a glass of Prosecco and enjoy the buffet for only 5€ ! I don’t have a huge appetite, so this can be a perfect dinner for me 🙂
Do remember your manners though, Aperitivi are not intended to be the normal person’s dinner, don’t be a glutton, overfill your plate and keep going back for seconds, thirds. The point of the aperitivo is to open up your palate and get your appetite started, because you need to save room to enjoy dinner!