As the sun sets across Italy, the aperitivo is underway from Milan to Palermo. Piazzas and cafe terraces buzz with clinking Aperol spritzes (and even a few complimentary small plates, too!). Welcome to Italy’s happy hour, when locals enjoy a few magical moments at the end of the day to relax into the evening and savor herbal, effervescent drinks. If you’re looking to pull up a chair and toast to your day on your next tour of Italy, here’s everything you need to know about the Italian aperitivo.
Watch this video from Tour Director, Stefania for a primer on Italian aperitivo straight from Italy.
The aperitivo is a warm up for dinner
Dinner in Italy (and across Europe) routinely starts at 9 p.m. or later. The aperitivo provides a leisurely time between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. to unwind, sip refreshing drinks, and socialize before dinner. “It’s important because it’s like a collective ritual to warm up the atmosphere,” said Italy Tour Director Barbara. “A wonderful habit we have in Italy which consists of an alcoholic drink and samples of food, something meant to whet your appetite.”
Although food is provided it is not intended to be an entire meal. Aperitivo comes from the latin word aperire meaning ‘to open’, and it’s intended to open your appetite before the main event of dinner. In general, one drink order equals one plate of complimentary food. The range of food varies, but prominent aperitivo plates include local cured meats, robust cheeses, and brined olives. Some restaurants roll out full buffets with crostini or tramezzini (crustless finger sandwiches with endless fillings).
Want to dine like a real Italian? Get more tips for eating your way through Italy.
Experience an aperitivo on tour in Italy
Bitter liqueurs are the secret to every great aperitivo drink
Traditionally, aperitivo drinks are made with bitter, herbal liqueurs like Aperol or Campari mixed with sparkling wine and soda water. Italians believe this delicious combo opens the palate for dinner. For a stronger kick, go for the beloved Italian negroni cocktail. It includes gin, Campari, and vermouth, and it’s commonly served during Italian aperitivo.
“Others simply opt for a nice glass of Prosecco or another sparkling wine like Franciacorta (the Italian version of Champagne),” said Barbara. Cynar, another popular Italian aperitif, is made primarily of artichokes. Locals traditionally sip it neat, on the rocks, or in a specialized cocktail like the Cyn-Cyn.
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Italians have 400 years of experience perfecting aperitivo culture
Northern Italy is the birthplace of the bitter liqueur cocktail, the main event of any Italian aperitivo. Soaking herbs and roots in alcohol and water solutions dates back to the 12th century when villagers traditionally used it as a medicinal tincture. With the creation of vermouth in the 1700's, Antonio Benedetto Carpano created a combination sweet enough to sip on patios. Campari, another popular Italian aperitif made of a proprietary mix of herbs, aromatic plants, and fruit, was invented near Milan, now known as the capital of aperitivo.
Know before you go
Prices vary, but expect to pay between eight and 10 euros for your aperitivo, around nine to 12 dollars USD for a drink and food. As for recommendations for the perfect aperitivo locale? Tour Director Barbara has you covered. “There are a couple of places where to have an excellent aperitivo here in Rome that I want to mention,” said Barbara. “Terrazza Fendi is a gorgeous venue in the heart of Rome, by the theatre of Marcellus worth going for the superb view and their elegant aperitivo. Cresci has opened quite recently near St. Peter Basilica and you can get your favorite drink served with either five, 10 or 20 different samples of food that go from pizza to eggplant parmigiana, fried baccalà, a little taste of pasta cacio e pepe etc. They vary depending on the season and availability.”
Lucky for you, every day in Italy comes complete with an evening. That means you’ll have plenty of opportunities on tour to get into the aperitivo culture, relish in each other, and enjoy the accoutrements of the good life. Cin cin!