by Lisa Masé
In Italy, the term aperitivo signals much more than simply happy hour. It means the marriage of colorful cocktails and artful appetizers, where, every afternoon, Italians gather at a bar to recount the day’s stories and savor the free hours before dinner. Yet, in contrast to the discounted drink prices found at American happy hours, Italy’s bars actually raise drink prices before the dinner hour. Rest assured, though, that the 10-Euro investment is well worth the price to gain unlimited access to the vast selection of each bar’s edible delights known as stuzzichini (appetizers).
These alluring, carefully crafted buffets offer something to stuzzicare (tantalize) anyone’s palate: delicate pasta ai ceci (savory flatbread pizza squares made from chickpea dough); lightly oiled and crunchy bruschetta; braised endive with garlic; various salumi and cheeses; roasted zucchini; caper and basil salads; cannellini beans marinated in parsley, olive oil and balsamic vinegar; seeded breadsticks and tender grilled meat on skewers. It’s a bounteous sight to behold, and each neighborhood bar scene matches the culinary variety: men in finely tailored pinstripes argue elbow-to-elbow with bookish college students; coiffed women in skintight dresses laugh with tousled farmers on their way home from the dairy. Every facet of the local culture is welcomed and cared for in exactly the same way.
At aperitivo, the emphasis is placed strongly on the food. Low-alcohol cocktails, such as Campari and soda or Aperol with prosecco, are very popular during this time because they enhance the food with which they are consumed and they’re not strong enough to dull the senses and distract from eating. Actually, it’s difficult—and expensive—to overdrink during aperitivo; rather than leaving happy hour with a light-headed buzz and an empty stomach, Italians are much more likely to leave wondering if they’ll have any appetite for dinner. In fact, food and alcohol are so firmly linked that ordering an alcoholic drink at any time of day elicits anything from a small bowl of supplemental peanuts to a platter of focaccia and prosciutto. Drinking without at least a small snack is practically unheard of, unless you’re having a digestivo (a digestive tonic like amari or bitters) after you’ve already eaten.
Even after 20 years of living in the United States, I always return home to northern Italy with elation and make immediate plans with friends and cousins to meet for aperitivo. My best friend from childhood recently introduced me to an Aperol Spritz during a visit to my hometown of Ferrara. As we sipped our fizzy orange drinks, we returned to the counter again and again for more bruschetta and salumi, savored the outdoor bar scene on the cobblestone piazza and stayed long enough to see the sun set between medieval castle towers. To me, the ritual and pace of aperitivo perfectly illuminate the stark differences between the American and Italian attitudes toward making a bar hour (or longer) happy.
To replicate the Italian aperitivo experience at home, strive for a variety of simple stuzzichini and refreshing, light drinks.
Negroni: one part Campari, one part gin, one part sweet vermouth. Serve over ice with an orange wedge.
Aperol Spritz: one part club soda, two parts Aperol, three parts prosecco. Serve over ice with a slice of lime.
Sanguinello: one part limoncello, two parts Campari, 2 parts blood-orange juice. Serve over ice with a twist of blood-orange rind.
Note: Use Paula’s Texas Lemon for a locally produced limoncello!
Classic Caprese Salad: sliced and salted tomatoes served with basil and high-quality mozzarella cheese and drizzled with olive oil.
Salumi Misti: assorted sliced meats like prosciutto, bresaola, speck, capocollo, coppa or cotechino.
Bruschetta: slices of sourdough ciabatta that have been broiled for two minutes, rubbed with a garlic clove and drizzled with high-quality olive oil.
Frittata: sautéed vegetables (try zucchini and garlic) mixed with whipped eggs then baked until firm.