The Do's and Don'ts of Aperitivo in Italy
Italy’s cuisine focuses more on food than drink, and the lion’s share of gatherings between friends and family happen around the dinner table rather than at the cocktail lounge. One exception is the hugely popular aperitivo, when Italians slide into mealtime with a quick pre-dinner drink and snacks that are meant to “open the palate”—thus the name aperitivo, from the Italian aprire (to open).
“The idea behind the Italian aperitivo,” explains Tuscany-based cookbook author and aperitivo enthusiast Emiko Davies, “is a little something to encourage you to feel hungry—to get the juices flowing, if you will—so you can fully enjoy your upcoming meal. Nothing that will ruin your appetite for dinner but, on the contrary, something that will help it along.”
Though the aperitivo trend began in Milan, today you’ll see café tables filled with revelers sipping, snacking, chatting, and relaxing from about 6pm until the dinner hour, from the Alpine peaks to the beaches of Sicily. “The aperitivo plays an important role in Italian social life,” explains Davies, “and is as much about the food and drink as it is about socializing.” Here’s how to dive into Italy’s aperitivo hour with true Italian panache.
Three aperitivo options (and how much they cost)
In Italy, an aperitivo can mean many things, depending upon the specific place (bar, café, lounge, or beach club) and evening of the week. Keep in mind that you will be charged for second and third rounds and don’t confuse the aperitivo with the discounted “happy hour” found in other countries. In Italy, drinks served during aperitivo are often slightly more expensive to cover the snacks and food. Different aperitivo offerings can carry a wide range of price tags:
An aperitivo can be simply a drink, which generally includes the beverage and a small serving of potato chips or salted nuts. These basic aperitivo experiences often have no surcharge for the snacks and can either be enjoyed sitting at a table or standing at the bar. Expect to pay at least €3.
If you’d like to highlight the food element, be sure to request an “aperitivo” when placing your drink order so your server understands that you’d like your drink to be accompanied by an array of finger foods and appetizers. There’s an endless variety of options, so ask first. This type of aperitivo is almost always table-service only and can cost between €5 and €15 per person, depending on the city and locale.
Turn your aperitivo into a casual (and inexpensive) meal with an “apericena,” a hybrid combining aperitivo and cena (dinner) that includes more substantial dishes. This is an excellent way to enjoy a light tapas-style meal, especially after a filling lunch. The apericena can be served either directly to your table or presented buffet-style. Prices begin at €10 per person, minimum.
And if there’s live music or entertainment during the aperitivo hour? Expect a surcharge.
What to drink for an aperitivo
The most common aperitivo drinks are alcoholic and feature the classic bitter Italian aperitifs as mixers, but you can also opt for an “aperitivo analcolico” (non-alcoholic drink, generally juice cocktails). “Certain beverages are seen as appropriate aperitivi, ‘stomach-opening’ liquids that are thought to help kickstart your digestion,” says Davies. “They’re usually relatively low in alcohol content and dry or even bitter rather than sweet—things like Prosecco, vermouth, Campari, or Aperol.” Here are some of the most popular:
Classic Italian cocktails: The most common aperitivo cocktail is the Spritz (a light mix of soda, prosecco, Aperol, and an orange twist), but Italians also love the Negroni (gin, vermouth, Campari, and an orange twist) and the Americano (soda, vermouth, and Campari).
International cocktails: Most well-stocked bars and cafés can mix up anything from a timeless gin and tonic to a trendy Moscow Mule. Hotspot mixology meccas in larger cities also serve cutting-edge signature cocktails, though Italians generally save those for the after-dinner round.
Wine: Wine is a perfectly acceptable and popular aperitivo, especially lighter reds and whites, as well as sparkling Prosecco, Spumante, or Brachetto.
The digestivo (after-dinner liqueurs and spirits, including grappa, limoncello, nocino, and amaro) and coffee drinks are the only beverages not served at aperitivo hour.
What to eat for an aperitivo
Aperitivo foods run the gamut from salted nuts to full buffets stocked with first and main courses. “While traditionally a small, complimentary offering of nuts, olives, perhaps some grissini (breadsticks), cheeses, or cold cuts accompanied your drink, you can find more and more elaborate meals being offered,” says Davies.
Even the most simple aperitivo includes standards such as olives and marinated vegetables, small cheese and charcuterie boards, mini pizzas and savory pastries, or even finger sandwiches. More filling apericena spreads include light pasta and rice dishes; simple meat, fish, and seafood; plus vegetable sides along with the standard aperitivo fare.
Italy’s best aperitivo scenes
Milan is generally considered the birthplace of the aperitivo and the city is still home to one of the most fashionable and lively aperitivo scenes in Italy. The best neighborhoods to experience Milan’s aperitivo hour are the Navigli and Brera.
Rome’s vibrant and bohemian Trastevere neighborhood can give even Milan’s aperitivo hour a run for its money. The party starts before sunset with pre-dinner drinks here and lasts late into the night.
Florence’s university students and staid professionals mix each evening in the Oltrarno Santo Spirito district, the epicenter of the city’s dining and imbibing. There are top aperitivo spots around the compact historic center, however, making this city ideal for an aperitivo crawl.
Venice has its own unique take on the aperitivo hour: cicchetti and an ombra. Head to one of the Floating City’s traditional bars for a plate of finger foods and a small glass of Veneto white wine.