Aperitivo – The Italian Pre-Dinner Cocktail with Accompaniments

Known in North America by the French name apéritif, an aperitivo is a drink meant to be had before the meal as an appetizer. To this purpose, the apertitivo is usually a moderately alcoholic cocktail based on vermouth, bitters or white wine. Non-alcoholic versions also exist.

Even though the aperitivo is technically a starter to the meal (the word comes from the Latin verb ‘aperire’, to open), Italians usually have it well before lunch or dinner, accompanied by a snack. Because of this, the aperitivo often refers to the whole experience of drink plus food (as Italians say: “fare l’aperitivo”, do the aperitif), with the actual purpose of quenching the appetite while waiting for a late meal.

As described in the article on breakfast, in Italy bars double as coffee shops and are often part of people’s daily routine. And in the bars of Milan and other north Italian cities, the evening aperitivo has evolved into its own tradition. Starting at around 6 pm (which is at least one hour before restaurants open) and continuing until 8 or 9 pm, most bars offer a lot more than peanuts and chips to accompany their drinks. For a slight surcharge on the aperitivo drink, a complimentary buffet of appetizers is commonly offered.

The best aperitivo venues overflow with customers attracted by their luscious buffets and compete in providing the best ambiance and quality. They are especially popular as social hubs, typically for after-work gatherings, while waiting for dinner time. Even though the buffets can be very tempting, generally people try not to take advantage and limit themselves to one or two small appetizer plates. However, aperitivo spots are also appreciated by students and younger crowds in general, which may help themselves more generously and even decide to have more than one round of drinks and skip dinner altogether.

As for the actual drink, all of the standard “pre-dinner” cocktails are served. These include:

  • Dry white wine, especially the sparkling Prosecco (see the article on wine);
  • Martini, which in Italy is just straight vermouth on the rocks (from the historical brand Martini e Rossi), as opposed to North American Martini – a cocktail based on gin or vodka;
  • Classic long-drinks, such as gin and tonic, rum and coke (also called Cuba Libre), Americano (gin and sweet red vermouth).

But the Italians favorites are bitters-based, they include:

  • Straight Campari (25% alcohol, created in 1860) or Aperol (11%, created in 1919), both served on ice and possibly topped up with soda water;
  • Campari (or Aperol) and white wine;
  • Negroni (gin, Campari and sweet red vermouth);
  • Spritz (Aperol or Campari, sparkling wine and soda water), which originated in the North East of Italy.

It has to be noted that none of the alcoholic aperitivo drinks are particularly strong. In North America they would all be considered “girly” drinks, also because of their bright colors. Italians enjoy them as appetizers, leaving red wine and beer to accompany dinner, and stronger liquors for later in the night.

Aperitivo drinks can even be entirely non-alcoholic and are quite popular in the morning before lunch. The most common are ‘San Pellegrino Bitter’ (more recently commercialized as ‘Sanbittèr’) and ‘Crodino’, both of which contain herb extracts that give them a bitter aftertaste. They are sold in small individual glass bottles (100 ml) and served on ice with a slice of lemon or orange, or as part of juice-based cocktails.

Pre-made low-alcohol aperitivo cocktails also exist and can be bought in single-dose glass bottles. The most important are Camparisoda (10%, created in 1932) and Aperol Soda (3%).

Appetizer display at Spritz bar.
Appetizer display at Spritz bar in Milan-Navigli.

As for the accompanying appetizers, other than the typical potato chips and toasted peanuts, it’s common to have olives, savory tarts, bruschette, pasta salads, pizzette. Also quite standard are cold cuts (including prosciutto, mortadella, salame), mozzarella and tomatoes, grilled vegetables, cheese bites (e.g.: Parmigiano slivers, smoked scamorza), or even generous blocks of spreadable cheese (e.g.: gorgonzola or brie), and a selection of breads (small buns and sliced loaves). More rarely deli appetizers are featured, for instance ‘insalata di mare’ (seafood salad, containing boiled octopus, squid, and shrimp in olive oil and lemon), ‘insalata russa’ (Russian salad, containing diced boiled potatoes, peas, carrots, in mayonnaise).

More appetizers at "Spritz" bar.
More appetizers at “Spritz” bar.

Occasionally, warm appetizers and even actual hot courses are offered in the classic buffet chafing dishes, heated with alcohol burners. Example include first courses that don’t need to be freshly made (e.g.: butter and sage tortellini, gnocchi with cheese sauce, baked pasta), second courses (e.g.: meat stews), and sides (e.g.: roasted potatoes or polenta).

Half-wheel of Parmigiano and focaccia slices.
Half-wheel of Parmigiano and focaccia slices, also in a Milan bar.

Every appetizer is served in bite-size portions meant to be eaten directly at the buffet or put on a small disposable plate and taken to the table. Plastic forks and knives are usually provided, though some places limit their customers to using toothpicks and serving spoons.

12 thoughts on “Aperitivo – The Italian Pre-Dinner Cocktail with Accompaniments”

  1. Un altro bellissimo e utilissimo post! Mi hai fatto venire voglia di tornare a Milano per un aperitivo ai Navigli!!!!

  2. Sorry – for the non-Italians out there 🙂 Manu said that I made her want to go back for an aperitivo on the Navigli [the area of Milan, known for its restaurants and its night scene, that surrounds the canals Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese]. I answered that the Navigli have the best spots for aperitivo.

  3. Happy hour in Milan…. The best cocktails in the world! I seriously never find a Mojito or Caipiroska or even Spritz better than the ones I used to have in Milan… I sooooo want a Spritz now!

  4. Hi Paolo, always a pleasure to read you. You mention bruschette in your article, I'd be interested to know a bit more about those in a later post.

  5. Hi Paolo! Thank you for stopping by my blog and for your sweet comments! I'm happy you did because I have now discovered yours! I lived off aperitivo for 6 months while living in Italy. I also tried to re-create the same thing at a bar-resto I was working at in Montreal, but unfortunately some people took advantage and behaved as if It was an all you can eat FREE buffet!!! lol!

  6. Pola, Philippe, Letizia, thanks for your comments, you're very kind.

    Pola, I agree with you… In cocktails the proportions are almost set in stone – you don't need to be a pharmacist to get them right!

    Philippe, it's a good idea – thanks. I'll describe my way to make bruschetta soon.

    Letizia, thanks for your feedback. I agree, in Italy you can eat a lot during aperitivo, but there is no free-loading – it's well understood that you must purchase an aperitivo drink to gain access to the buffet. And if you stay for more than 1/2 hour, you probably end up buying more than one drink. Sorry your initiative couldn't make it, but kudos for trying!

  7. I'm trying to think of a drink that they had in Italy. It came in little bottles, 6 pack and was red. It was carbonated, and I want to say it was an aperitivo, but don't remember alcohol being in it… Any help??!! please let me know via sleeplessn2009 at yahoo dot com Thanks!!

  8. Hi Anonymous reader! The most important non-alcoholic red aperitivo sold in individual bottles is Sanbitter, not to be mistaken with Campari Soda (alcoholic). The most important orange one is Crodino (non-alchoholic), my favorite 🙂

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