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The Art of Aperitivo: How Italy Does Happy Hour in Style

When it comes to the art of living, Italians have it nailed. They are masters of la bella vita to the same degree that they are masters of high fashion and luxury cars.

With brands such as Lamborghini, Ferrari, Armani, Prada, Versace, and Dolce & Gabbana securing Italy’s place at the global apex of style and opulence (perhaps bordering on decadence), the country has a reputation for doing certain things up right. 

A beautiful way of life and a rich culinary culture are just as important to Italy’s collective identity as haute couture and luxury automobiles. If pricey clothes and cars are not in your budget, nessun problema! The Italian customs of everyday life are accessible to everyone. 

So let’s jump into our discussion about the ubiquitous Italian habit that marries social tradition with food and drink: aperitivo hour.

Origins of the Aperitivo Tradition in Italy

The tradition of partaking in an alcoholic beverage before a meal to stimulate the appetite has been going on in both France and Italy for many moons. In Italy, the story of the modern aperitivo goes back to Turin in the late 18th Century, with the invention of vermouth. A fortified wine infused with botanicals and spices, vermouth played a significant role in the dawn of the aperitivo phenomenon. Regarded as a more suitable beverage for women because of its aromatic and delicate properties, vermouth quickly gained popularity and became a principal ingredient in many aperitivo concoctions.

Knowing how Italians love to eat, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that food soon entered the realm of the aperitivo experience. During the mid-19th Century, cafés in Turin began to serve finger foods alongside cocktails to enhance the social experience and provide a bit of sustenance before dinner. These light bites were known as stuzzichini and they became a common feature of aperitivo hour as it spread across the nation.

(The word stuzzichini comes from the verb stuzzicare. In Italy today, this verb is commonly used to talk about snacking but the word has a wacky array of meanings including “to tease,” “to sharpen,” “to irritate,” and “to molest.” Stuzzicare could frankly be the subject of an entire article. For the purpose at hand, however, we’ll go with the more fitting translations of “to tease” or “to sharpen.” These meanings are also more synonymous with the root of the word aperitivo, which comes from the Latin word meaning “to open.”)

Milan also played a major role in popularizing the custom of aperitivo. In the 1920s, Milan was introducing its own version of cocktail hour in its fashionable bars. These establishments offered a variety of alcoholic beverages and a buffet of appetizers, attracting a sophisticated clientele.

Campari: Don’t Miss the Red Passion

It was in Milan that another aperitivo classic was born: Campari. No discussion about the aperitivo tradition would be complete without talking about this iconic Italian beverage.

 In 1860, Gaspare Campari opened his own café in Milan, Caffè Campari. It was in Milan (after several decades of experimentation and tending bar in Turin) that he introduced his signature creation, the Campari liqueur. The drink is a blend of herbs, spices, and fruits steeped in alcohol with a distinctive bitter taste and vibrant pinkish-red colour. It quickly gained popularity among Milanese patrons. Today, Campari is a staple in Italian bars and restaurants, typically mixed with Prosecco as a refreshing spritz or with gin and sweet vermouth into the delectable booze bomb known as the Negroni.

In addition to being a unique beverage, Campari is known for its distinctive and sometimes edgy advertising, which has featured bold, artistic posters and commercials. The company commissioned renowned artists and designers to create striking visuals that captured the essence of Campari.

Despite its worldwide fame and contribution to global cocktail culture, the Campari recipe has remained a closely guarded secret since its debut, known to only a few privileged individuals. With its moniker “Red Passion,” it is the quintessential Italian aperitivo. No visit to Italy would be complete without sampling some Campari as you sit on a streetside patio in the glow of early evening.

How to Do Happy Hour Like an Italian

So what does happy hour Italian-style look like? 

Well, it is different from the North American concept in that it doesn’t mean cheap drinks. In Italy, happy hour is about the drinks packaged with snacks. In some places, the snacks are quite simple. In others, there is an impressive spread that can pretty much amount to a meal. In fact, you might even see this referred to as apericena; a combination of the words aperitivo and cena, which means “dinner” in Italian. The price of the drink (around 7 Euro in non-tourist areas; 10 Euro or more in the big cities and tourist destinations) includes the buffet and is a great way to go out to eat if you’re on a budget.

 In a country that’s famous for wine and other interesting alcoholic beverages (there are many to explore beyond vermouth and Campari), you’ll find a vast selection of drinks at happy hour in Italy. Wine is certainly a staple but Prosecco is Italy’s signature drink, especially when a celebration is involved. Prosecco is a dry sparkling wine that is nothing short of a party in a glass, its effervescence a sure-fire catalyst to a festive mood. Beer is also popular at cocktail hour, and many fantastic craft beers are now being produced in Italy. Of course, stylish cocktails pervade the aperitivo scene but spritzes made with either Campari or Aperol dominate the happy hour landscape, along with a robust “Salute!” (To health!) or “Cin-cin!” (Cheers!) as glasses are clinked.

Depending on where you are in Italy, what you nibble on during happy hour will vary — because each region puts its own twist on the buffet spread — but when you go for drinks will invariably track with Italian dinner time. Restaurants in Italy don’t usually open for dinner until 7:30 pm (unless you are in a tourist area), so Italians go for an aperitivo starting around 7 pm. In late-spring and summer months, when the days are warmer and longer and dinner happens later, you might see Italians strolling in as late as 9 pm for the pre-dinner drink ritual.

The Aperitivo: Symbol of the Italian Art of Living

The custom of going for an aperitivo is alive and well year-round in Italy but it is at its vibrant best in summer. Once the weather gets warm, the piazzas and sidewalk terraces are buzzing with talk and laughter as people enjoy their beverages. This is the heart and soul of happy hour in Italy. The drinks may be iconic and the food may be great, but the real point is being together. And that is something Italians excel at.

Regardless of the regional variations and the drink fads that come and go, the aperitivo remains a constant fixture in Italian culture. It’s a joyous forum in which family, friends, and colleagues can unwind and socialize at the end of the day or kick off a celebration. The aperitivo has become a symbol of the Italian art of living, a beautiful but everyday way to savour good things from the earth in good company.

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