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Unraveling Italian Culture: What is Aperitivo?

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In this corner of the Mediterranean, aperitivo is a word you will hear a lot. And, If you want to blend in with the Italians, you’ll need to know what it means. So, what is aperitivo? Let’s find out.

What is Aperitivo

Aperitivo comes from the Latin “aperire” which means to open. This captures the very essence of what the tradition of the Italian aperitivo is: to come together and open up, to have good conversation and stimulate the appetite. It is the ritual of sitting together, with friends over drinks and small snacks in the early evening generally between 6 and 8 pm, drinking, chatting and enjoying each other’s company.

Typically, an aperitivo drink is low in alcohol, served with soda water, and falls into two subcategories:
  • bitter liqueurs
  • aromatized wines
Often distinguished by color, popular bitter liqueurs are either orange or red. They include drinks like Aperol (orange), Campari (red) and Cynar (red). Popular aromatized wines include vermouth, chinato and americano. Combining the two with a dash of soda, a top of prosecco or, as in the case of a Negroni, a shot of gin, brings to life some of Italy’s most notable and great tasting aperitivo drinks.

Of course, if you’d rather just have a glass of white wine or a short glass of beer as your aperitivo that’s completely fine too.

The Origins of Aperitivo

The origins of Italy’s pre-dinner drinks culture are difficult to trace. Some reports suggest that origins of aperitivo begin with the invention of vermouth. But this poses its own problems too, as the origins of fortified herbals wines are also shrouded in ambiguity.

That said, the rise of popularity in aperitivo culture in Italy is believed to have followed Antonio Benedetto Carpano’s invention of modern vermouth in Turin near Milan. Also, helping to take the aperitivo from fad to tradition was Gaspare Campari’s eponymous drink which took off in the early 1920s.

Milan is widely recognized as the birthplace of the aperitivo. But, nowadays, the entire country enjoys the pre-dinner cocktail ritual.

Classic Campari Aperitivo

Campari is a stalwart of many of aperitivo cocktails with the bitter liqueur helping to stimulate the appetite. Here are a couple of Campari classics to look out for when heading out for your Italian aperitivo.

  • Americano

This is a simple cocktail and a delightful introduction into the worlds of both Campari and the Italian aperitivo. Combine Campari and sweet vermouth in a highball glass, top with soda water and garnish with an orange twist.

  • Negroni

If you are looking for something a little bit stronger, then turn your attention to the Negroni. To make this drink, mix together equal parts of gin, vermouth, and Campari over ice in a rocks glass and garnish with an orange twist.

Check out our complete list of fantastic Italian cocktails here.

Wait, What is Campari?

Campari and aperitivo go hand in hand. So, let’s take a second to learn a little about it.

Invented in 1860 by Gaspare Campari, the red, bitter liqueur comes from Novara, a small town 50 kilometers from Milan. 

After having opened a cafe in the small town, Gaspare spent his days experimenting with drink recipes. Eventually, he hit upon, what he didn’t know yet, would be his winning formula, Campari.

Gaspare initially called the liqueur Bitter all’uso d’Hollanda which translates literally in English to Dutch Bitter. To give the drink its distinct red color he used carmine dye which comes from crushing cochineal insects. Although this has since changed, the rest of Campari’s secret recipe has stayed exactly the same over the many years since its birth.

When Gaspare’s wife died, he moved to Milan where he opened a new cafe, Amicizia. However, shortly after opening, Gaspare had to sell the property. The plot of the land the cafe found itself on was to be developed for a new cathedral piazza. In return, Gaspare received property in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuel, Milan’s ritzy shopping arcade, which he named Gaspare’s Bar.
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From here, Campari took off, the upmarket clientele who frequented the bar helping to bolster the drink's popularity.

In 1882, when Gaspare died, his son Davide would prove an astute businessman when he took over the bar. Davide, dropped the other liqueurs Gaspare had developed and begun selling Campari to other bars, eventually exporting the drink internationally, too. Campari’s distinct taste proves popular beyond Italy. And, in the 20th century, with the advent of popular cocktails that incorporated the drink, Campari would continue to grow as a product, a brand, and a company.

The Aperitivo Menu

You can’t begin to answer the question what is aperitivo without talking about food. This is an integral part of pre-dinner, Italian drinking culture. So, as important as it is to have a drink, it's equally important to make sure you have something to nibble on too.

Generally, there are two approaches to food when enjoying an aperitivo. The first is the more traditional restaurant-style approach. You order a drink, and your waiter brings you a small selection of things to snack on. Depending on where you are these range from chips, olives, and nuts to bruschetta, cold cuts, and cheeses. Alternatively, some places will operate as a buffet. Each drink you order allows you to fill a small plate with a selection of delicious savory treats. Again, depending on where you are the selection of snacks will vary.

Like with the Spanish tradition of tapas in Granada you only pay for the drink, the food is an accompaniment. This is because the food is not considered a meal but like the drink something to arouse the appetite.

Where to Go for a Milanese Aperitivo

Milan is the city where aperitivo culture runs the strongest. If you’re in Milan and looking for a spot to dip your toe in the aperitivo pool, head to one of these places.

  • Straf Bar

Via San Raffaele 3, Milan 

This minimalist bar is a part of the Straf hotel. The trendy design with its industrial panels and recycled plexiglass chandeliers creates a cool, casual atmosphere. It packs out Tuesdays and Thursdays when there are live music acts and DJs. Stop by from 6.00 pm for excellent pre-dinner cocktails served by hip, knowledgeable bartenders alongside little table snacks of olives and nuts.

  • Bar Basso

Via Plinio 39, Milan

Welcome to the bar that, allegedly, the culture of the aperitivo originates from. Whether it did or didn’t, we’ll never know. But, what we do know is that this is the bar where the Negroni Sbagliato comes from. For those who don’t know, this take on the Negroni substitutes gin for prosecco. Come here for your aperitivo and rub shoulders with the design set who call this bar home.

  • Cantine Isola

Via Paolo Sarpi 30, Milan

For the wine lovers out there, head to Cantine Isola. Here, wine shelves dress the walls with bottles of every Italian wine you can imagine. From full-bodied reds to sharp whites and bubbly you’ll find something to your taste. Located in Milan’s Chinatown and open for over 100 years, Cantine Isola is always a great spot to head to come aperitivo time.

What is aperitivo? Now you know. And, with a couple of places to go, why not head out and experience it first hand?  

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