The fundamentals of the Italian Aperitivo

The fundamentals of the Italian Aperitivo

Musement shares the fundamentals of the iconic Italian pre-dinner tipple: the aperitivo.

Of Italy’s world-famous exports, such as pizza, fashion and fast cars, it is one of the most recent that has garnered an impressive number of fans in a short time, worldwide: the aperitivo.

Disambiguation: an aperitivo is a pre-meal alcoholic drink specifically meant to whet your appetite, and therefore references the actual drink and not the activity – unlike, for instance, Happy Hour. With the increasing popularity of these alcoholic pre-dinner tipples, the term aperitivo now encompasses both the drinks and the snacks, for ease.

The concept of aperitivo is thought to have been conceived in Turin in 1786 by distiller Antonio Benedetto Carpano, the same man who created the eponymous vermouth, the first of its kind. He claimed that his special combination of fortified white wine and 30-plus herbs and spices stimulated the appetite, thus coining the now ubiquitous aperitivo drinks.

A predominantly Northern Italian tradition, the aperitivo scene is not the same in the various cities. In Milan for example, its invention is attributed to the adoptive Milanese Gaspare Campari, whose bitter may not have been the first, but certainly, history proved his to be the most popular and longevous.

In Venice, the apertivo takes on an entirely different ritual. While today large Spritzes are commonplace, historically both the lagoon dwelling Venetians and those in the surrounding cities like Vicenza and Padua would whet their appetite with “un’ombra de vin” – ombra is a small glass (about an eighth or a tenth of a liter), which has since become a measurement, and turn of phrase, to describe a small amount of wine perfect for an aperitivo. To accompany the wine, Venetian bacari (osterie) prepare small snacks ranging from baccalà to small meatballs or sarde in saor (sweet and sour sardines), served on a slice of bread (think of them as Italian pinchos).

Drinking on an empty stomach is a very non–Italian way to approach alcohol, so of course, with an aperitivo come its traditional bites. Crisps, salted nuts, and olives will do, but this may be considered lazy by a true Italian. Salatini, a traditional aperitivo snack consisting of bite-sized puff pastries in different shapes and sizes stuffed with anything from anchovies to sausage used to be commonplace. Other finger foods like tartines are also a tradition, while pizzette (tiny pizzas) are the carb-laden winner in the category. With the ever-increasing popularity of aperitivo, its lucrative potential was exploited with many locales transforming their offerings into huge spreads of mixed quality foods from pasta salad to frittatas, passing by potato wedges and couscous.

Thankfully, the popularity of all-you-can-eat is waning, and for those who wish to indulge in a heftier aperitivo snack (perhaps forgoing a 3-course meal afterward), traditional Italian salume (cold cuts) or gourmet finger food are the best approaches.

But now for the main event – the cocktails:

Bitter based cocktails are definitely the norm – with the Florentine Negroni (which celebrates its century of epic hangover-giving abilities this year) and Americano topping the list of the traditional aperitivi. In Milan, the Negroni Sbagliato – made with sparkling wine instead of gin and was invented at Bar Basso in 1972 –is another staple.

But today, in Italy and abroad, the term aperitivo has become synonymous with the Spritz, originated in the Veneto region. The Spritz is generally made with Aperol, but some favor Campari (more bitter), while in Venice it’s made with the locally brewed Murano Select. For more delicate pallets, Bellini (Champagne/Prosecco and fresh peach juice – invented in 1948 by the legendary Giuseppe Cipriani – yes that Cipriani, in Venice), is always a good choice as is the Hugo, a spritzy sort of drink made with prosecco and elderflower syrup. This cocktail, which hails from Alto Adige, is up for a long-overdue renaissance and is perfectly refreshing for summer.

Last but by no means least, Martinis are perfect for the serious aperitivo drinker, while the very British gin and tonic will do, too. On the note of British aperitivi, or summer drinks, Pimms is slowly making its way onto the menus and I’m hoping to see to giant pitchers of Pimms and fresh fruit becoming a thing for aperitivo in 2020.

Cover photo: Wine Dharma on / CC BY

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