Happy Hour and aperitivo are not the same thing. While Happy Hour typically has specially discounted alcoholic beverages to entice drinkers, an aperitivo does not. If you are attending an Italian aperitivo, don’t expect cheap drinks. Instead, most drinks are offered at the same fixed price (approximately the same price as it would be any other time of day), but you also get a little snack to accompany your beverage of choice.
Aperitivo, much like the English Happy Hour, is served between the end of standard office hours and the start of the typical dinnertime. So, depending on the region, that could be anywhere between 5pm and 9pm. And because the bar can get rather busy during this time period, servers will often ask that you pay immediately upon ordering, rather than accruing a tab.
You will quickly notice that there is no endless margarita offer. An Italian aperitivo is not the time or place for strong, get-you-drunk-fast drinks. Instead, you will find Italians drinking easy, sip-able beverages. Another general rule is that aperitivo drinks will fall on the bitter side of the flavor spectrum. The combination of salty snacks and bitter drinks is perfect for opening up your appetite for your upcoming dinner.
An aperitivo staple is a nice glass of wine. This can be red, white, or sparkling. A bar may have their own house wine, or you can sample a local bottle from the region. You could also try vermouth, which is a type of fortified wine infused with an herbal flavor.
Another easy beverage is a bottle of beer. Unless you are at a specialty birreria, don’t expect fancy IPAs or other craft beers. 90% of the time, if you ask for a beer, the server will bring you an empty glass and a bottle of Peroni or Moretti.
This is possibly the most famous Italian cocktail. A spritz is made up of 3 parts prosecco (a sparkling wine), 2 parts bitters, and is then spritzed up with a splash of club soda. The “bitter” aspect is usually one of three celebrated brands: Aperol, Campari, or Select. This beverage is also usually garnished with a slice of orange to accompany the slightly orange-y flavor of the drink.
While the spritz is mildly bitter and very refreshing, the negroni is a bit heartier in flavor. It is comprised of gin, Campari, and red vermouth. The three alcohols combine to one make this beverage rather strong.
The americano is the negroni’s weaker cousin. They have a similar taste, but a major difference in alcoholic strength. The recipe is the same, except that the americano is made with a good pour of non- alcoholic club soda instead of gin.
While most Italians come for the alcohol, they develop a loyalty to a locale based on the food. An
aperitivo is not complete without a little something to nibble on while you sip your cocktail of choice.
Internationally Recognized “Bar Food”
I think it is safe to say that some foods are now internationally known as “bar foods”. No matter where you go around the globe, you will find bars serving potato chips, popcorn, or peanuts that may or may not be lightly salted alongside alcoholic drinks.
Breads and Crackers
Italy is famous for pizza, pasta, and wine. But I personally think it should also be recognized for its delicious breads. At an Italian aperitivo, there is a good chance you will be served some form of bread- based snack. This may be slices of actual bread, focaccia, or schiacciata. Or you may receive a package of grissini, which are a type of crispy, crunchy, super-thin breadsticks. Another common bread-based snack is an Italian cracker called taralli; these are dense, bready crackers shaped into the crude form of a ring. Another bread-based possibility is a plate of bruschette. Bruschetta is a small slice of bread, topped with olive oil, basil, and tomato.
I like to loosely translate taglieri as “a charcuterie board”, but that’s not quite accurate. Taglieri are cuts of cured meats (like salami or prosciutto), cheeses (like pecorino or parmesan), grilled vegetables (like zucchini or eggplants), or any combination of the three. The cuts are then served on a plate or a wooden board, much like a standard charcuterie board.
The best and easiest foods to serve require no cutlery. Many aperitivo establishments will serve a variety of foods that don’t require forks or knives. This may be any amalgamation of quiche, mini cupcake-sized pizzas called pizzette, polpette (which are similar to meatballs), olives, or dried tomatoes.
Types of Aperitivi
Depending on the locale, the snack may differ in size. But as a general rule, it will be moderately small and not overly filling. The aperitivo is not meant to be a meal replacement. In fact, it is supposed to act as only an “appetite opener” that merely whets your appetite and kick-starts your metabolism before you eat your actual meal. I typically categorize aperitivi in one of four unofficial groups based on the way they serve their snacks: the bar bowl, the sampler plate, the buffet, or apericena.
At this type of aperitivo establishment, you can expect the most wallet-friendly prices, but the snack options will match the low price. These are the locations that will serve your drink alongside a single, small bowl of popcorn, peanuts, potato chips, or crackers.
At this bar, you will likely share a plate of snacks with the rest of your table. When the server brings over your drinks, he will also bring a big plate filled with a variety of snacks to sample. These snacks may include cold cuts of salami, cheese wedges, olives, dried tomatoes, bruschette, and more of the same little snacks from the aforementioned bar bowls.
Unlike the previous two types of aperitivi, this style of aperitivo is more customizable. After you’ve ordered, you are welcome to head up to the bar where the establishment has prepared a buffet of snacks. You grab a plate and fork, and then you are free to pick up whatever snacks you like. On the buffet line, you will see the same snacks as named before, but also some warmer foods like pizzette, quiche, or grilled vegetables. This buffet is run on the honor system, so please be considerate. Don’t be greedy and grab more than your fair share. If you want more food, order more drinks before heading back up to the bar for seconds.
The apericena is very different from the traditional aperitivo. Remember earlier when I said the Italian aperitivo is not meant to fill your stomach like a dinner? This is the one exception. Apericena comes from a hybrid of two Italian words: aperitivo (meaning an aperitif like happy hour) and cena (meaning “dinner”). In this instance, the aperitivo IS your dinner. At an apericena, you will be served the same delicious drinks and snacks, but the snacks will come in larger quantities and may even start to look more like an actual dinner meal. If an establishment publicizes their aperitivo time as an apericena, you can expect to see pastas, full slices of pizza, and small cuts of carne (“meat”) alongside the usual aperitivo snacks.
The aperitivo is a beloved aspect of the Italian culture. It is ideal for catching up with old friends, easing your post-work hunger while you wait for dinner (which is not for another hour or more), and just relaxing in general. It is loved by all ages and genders. On any given evening, you are likely to see crowds of students relaxing after university, groups of older gentlemen letting off steam after work, or extended family members meeting up on a random Tuesday.
Pro Tip: I personally love using the amazing deals of an aperitivo when I am out traveling. Sometimes in Italy, you fall in love with a particular piazza, fountain, or work of architectural beauty. You wish you could spend an entire hour just taking in the sight. But, if you stood in a piazza without moving to marvel at the beauty for more than 10 minutes, people might start to think you are strange. Instead, you may want to sit down and enjoy, like at an eating establishment. The unfortunate fact is that most restaurants near popular tourism hotspots are over-priced and not the highest quality. As a compromise, I suggest grabbing a drink and enjoying an aperitivo with the view of a breathtaking piazza. Then, you can get a more economical dinner at a restaurant later in the evening.