Italians know how to unwind. Their version of happy hour is a slightly more distinguished, relaxing affair than its American counterpart– although the booze and food is damn good.
In its simplest form, happy hour, or aperitivos, is a pre-dinner drink that is accompanied by finger foods. The aperitivos took up a unique social function in Italian life. It’s similar to the better-known concept of Spanish Tapas, but aperitivos has its own unique drinks and foods.
Partaking in an aperitivo anywhere in Italy is a to eat a snapshot of local flavors.
Where’d this best boozy time come from?
As usual with history– there are a couple theories.
Theory 1: From medicine to just a plane good time.
Italians drank bitter alcoholic drinks to aid digestion and it’s theorized the evening practice of snacking and drinking sprang from there. The paper “Amaro. A boozy, bitter history of digestivi from the pharmacy to the bar” by Rachel Black covers this theory and some other pretty interesting stuff– like the rise of small business in Northern Italy in the nineteenth century, which, ok, yawn, kinda boring history stuff. But the fun part is that this shift pushed alcohol from being a medicine on the pharmacy shelves to a social event on restaurant tables. (Grazia milla 19th century Northern Italian small business owners.)
Theory 2: A Campari party.
Gaspare Campari is the man of the hour. You might recognize Gaspare’s last name as the label of the ruby-red alcoholic bitter Campari. And academic Robyn Baitcher singles out Gaspare Campari as the driving force behind the social phenomenon of the aperitivo. In her paper, “Academi aperitivo,” Robyn says:
“Called Campari, it was the name of a person, café and liqueur, and it was not for the unification of Italy but for the unification of Italians themselves, giving foundation to the delicious Italian custom of aperitivo.”
Basically, Gaspare made the liquor Campari and it was delicious. So delicious that he brought together Italians under one roof in his café, then other roofs of other cafés and eventually all across Italy you’ve got Italians hitting the café at six for drinks. Bene. Molto bene.
Theory 3: I don’t care if it’s shaken or stirred.
Vermouth could be to thank. Donna Wheeler writing for Lonely Planet mentions that Turin, the capital of the northern region of Piedmont, claims it came up with the practice of going out for an aperitivo. Vermouth was invented in Turin in 1786 and is one of the other popular liqueurs consumed at an aperitivo.
Like all history lessons, this one ends with the it probably came from a mix of all of these factors but we’ll never actually know statement. Ok, enough history. Let’s get drinking.
What makes aperitivos, aperitivos?
The answer to this is as simple as the place, Italy, and as complicated as everything that comes with the entire weight of a culture.
The book “Speak the Culture, Italy” puts it bluntly: an aperitivos is meant to “stimulate the appetite and enhance conversation before a meal.” No shit, Sherlock. It’s really the type of drinks that make aperitivos unique.
The alcohol of choice is bitters mixed with something like cola or tonic. The two most common bases for the aperitivos drinks are the two liqueurs that are at the heart of the aperitivos’ history: Campari and Vermouth.
Campari is bright red and bitter and the recipe is kept secret. Vermouth is made by adding herbs, spices, and bitter flavorings to white or red wine. Campari and Vermouth are mixed with soda to create the Americano or with gin to create the Negroni, both of which are classic drinks to consume at an aperitivos. Apart from the Americano and the Negroni, there are many other popular aperitivos drinks that someone unfamiliar with Italy may not know about. Aperol is a common Italian liqueur sometimes used to make a “spritz” by mixing it with soda and sparkling white wine. Sweet and sparkling wines are also popular.
Along with the drinks of course, is food.
There is an Italian saying, “L’appetito vien mangiando” which roughly translates to “the appetite comes when you eat.” It’s the sexy Italian way of saying, “you can’t have just one chip.”
Originally, the aperitivo was meant to “whet one’s appetite” and get you hungry for dinner but today, it has grown to the point of sometimes being dinner itself.
Classic snacks are nuts, green olives, and potato chips. Many cafés and bars serve up more– thank goodness. You’ll need something to soak up the drinks.
Salumi, Italian cured meats, are common. Local cheeses and vegetables are also part of the spread of foods available.
If you get the chance to partake in an evening aperitivo, know that you pay for your drink first and the cost of your drink includes the cost of food. Sometimes, the food is out in an area for everyone to graze on. Other times, you take small plates back to your table. Look around and do what others are doing. And don’t be a food hog.
Food and drinks create a place to relax with friends and family– which is the point, the evening social glue. Mingle with your neighbors over an evening drink.
Cafés and bars in northern Italy generally offer the aperitivo experience from as early as 6pm to as late as 10pm. Oh, and one more important point, “cafés” are what American’s call bars and “bars” are coffee bars. It’s a little confusing but just remember that those two terms are the inverse of each other in Italy.
“It’s interesting that the aperitivo, from a sociological perspective, becomes a ‘free’ space where different people–students, professionals, married couples, singles, Italian and foreigners–gather to mingle.” – Pierluca Birindelli
I’ll raise my glass to that any time.