This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Ah, the first drink at the end of the day – a noble tradition honoured almost anywhere in the world. Getting a boozy kick at a bar before dinner is what prevents a probably shocking number of adults from losing their minds on the daily. In the UK, we know this as happy hour, a glorious time when –if you’re lucky – the drinks are two-for-one and the snacks are cheap. But in Italy, it is all about the aperitivo, a glass of your poison of choice accompanied by a bite to eat, free of charge.
Now, on regular weekdays in a regular bar, the snacks that come with your aperitivo are pretty basic: olives, peanuts, some chips. But of course, Italians are well-known for taking food up a notch. Today, some bars are famous for their extravagant aperitivos, where side snacks turn into full-blown buffets complete of hot and cold dishes, including small pizzas, salads and even lasagna.
Usually, those aren’t completely free, but they don’t cost much more than a regular drink. This trend has opened up a whole new set of options for people who like to go out after work or school – instead of sitting down for a proper bite, you can have apericena (or apertivo-dinners) where you intentionally eat so much at the buffet it counts as your dinner.
As it turns out, aperitivos have been bringing joy into Italian people’s lives for centuries. Gastronomy historians date the invention of a prototypical form of the tradition back to the heyday of the Roman empire. Before tucking into their banquets, Romans of means enjoyed a gustatio, an appetiser washed down with a glass of honey-sweetened wine. The word aperitivo itself comes from the Latin aperitivus, or something that opens. In this context, it refers to opening up one’s appetite before satiating it completely.
While the Romans might have been the first Italians to enjoy aperitivo, the craze didn’t officially pick up until the 19th century in the northern Italian city of Turin. Back then, Turin was famous for its cafes, frequented by upper-class residents in the afternoons and evenings, including at dinner time. The cafes began serving their alcohol with food to cater to their female customers, as it was deemed inappropriate for them to drink on an empty stomach.
Fulvio Piccinino, one of Italy's leading mixology experts, confirmed Turin as the birthplace of the aperitivo. Piccino said the tradition actually has deeper roots in the region surrounding Turin, Piedmont, and its farming culture. On Sundays, farmers in the area would enjoy a late-afternoon meal known as merenda sinoira (or “dinner-snack”) which involved wine and a host of tiny, light dishes.
He remembers his own uncles, who own a vineyard, snacking away after working in the fields, too. “They’d have pickled rabbit, a slice of salami, a piece of cheese, washed down with an easy-to-drink wine, like a muscat,” he said. “Even today, there are some restaurants where it’s tradition to start dinner with 20-25 appetisers… and then have nothing else.”
In general, Italian drinking culture is all about combining booze with food. “For us Italians, it's taboo to drink without eating,” said Valeria Bassetti, of the women's bartending collective ShakHer. “I consider it a healthy habit. The English ‘liquid lunch’ does a lot of damage to the body.”
Besides being the aperitivo’s original home, Turin is also the birthplace of vermouth, a herby, wine-based concoction best known internationally under the name of one specific brand that makes it: Martini. Italians ran with the theme, leading to similarly herbaceous drinks being developed over the course of the next decades: Ramazzotti, Campari and, last but not least, Martini.
That’s perhaps why the drinks we traditionally associate with aperitivo to this day are all vermouth-based: the Aperol Spritz, introduced in Venice in the 1920s; the Negroni, created in Florence also around that time; and finally the lesser-known Sbagliato, which literally translates to “wrong”, invented in the 1970s in Milan when a local barman grabbed sparkling wine instead of gin by accident while preparing a Negroni.
In fact, after becoming popular in Turin, the aperitivo quickly spread to all major cities and became a truly national tradition. "It might be true that vermouth and the aperitivo were born in Turin, but from the start, Milan has been a co-protagonist in this Italian story,” said Marco Budano, who also works for Martini.
Just as tapas dishes differ across Spain, each Italian city has its own take on aperitivo. The Milanese contribution to the tradition was the invention of the aperitivo-dinner with those aforementioned extravagant buffets. The idea was allegedly pioneered by bar owner Vinicio Valdo who, in the 90s, had nothing short of a revelation. “At the end of the workday, we had factory workers come in to drink Cinzanino or Campari,” he said in a 2017 interview. “I realised that the more food I gave them to tease their appetite, the more they stayed and drank.”
I’m not a big fan of the apericena, I have to say. Standing around with a drink in your hands while eating in front of these buffets full of food is not my idea of fun. However, I do respect its historic value.
No matter its form, though, the aperitivo remains a beloved tradition for all Italians, “a little holiday that we take every day”, as Bassetti from ShakHer said. “It’s born out of the desire to separate the time dedicated to work from free time,” she continued. “All the emotional fuzz and atmosphere around it – that’s what an aperitivo is.”
Nicola Piazza, who also works at Martini, doesn’t think of aperitivo as a meal or a trend but as a special moment of the day. “It’s synonymous with conviviality, with spending time together,” he said. “It’s a true social ritual.”