Italian Aperitivo Finds Its Footing in America

Italy's take on happy hour, aperitivo, is gaining steam in the U.S., where a number of bars are combining the Italian tradition of leisure with that of American drink-making. Here, a selection of cocktails that are helping define aperitivo, stateside.

Dissecting an arancini at Alta Linea, Joe Campanale's seasonal aperitivo bar located on NYC's High Line (left). An effervescent take on the Garibaldi [Recipe] that drinks like a bitter mimosa (right).

A trio of spritzes (left) and a couple of Garibaldis (right) making it look easy.

Alta Linea's Blood Moon, a mix of Rosa Amara Amaro, Fever Tree Tonic, lemon juice and orange bitters. [Recipe]

Diving into a plate of artichokes, an aperitivo staple in Venice.

Alta Linea's frozen Sgroppino [Recipe] and a frozen Negroni [Recipe] coming out of the machine behind the bar.

The frozen Negroni in all of its glory.

The Cold in the Shadows, a mix of Campari, raspberry liqueur, honey syrup, lime and IPA [Recipe] from Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau's Spritz.

The look of a proper aperitivo spread.

Our vision of Italy wears a half-century’s worth of veneer, dating back to Hollywood on the Tiber, Roman Holiday and the timeless, vivid vision of Italy that Fellini captures in La Dolce Vita. It’s Vespas and linen, a stud for every scenario (the mailman, the taxi driver, the ice cream guy—is anyone ugly?), Sophia Loren in a plunge neck one-piece, cruising through the Mediterranean in a Riva Aquarama, and a permanent, sun-drenched perch in the piazza.

Even today, when most of us land in Milan or Rome or Venice, we expect to be served up some version of this fantasy. And even if it is precisely that—a fantasy—there is a kind of everyday magic, available to everyone, that Italy cannot help but possess.

That magic plays out in a myriad of ways, but makes a reliable daily appearance during that sliver of time between work and play, l’hora del aperitivo, which has become a symbol of just how intently the Italians covet relaxation. It’s happy hour elevated to an art form.

It’s a far cry from the typical happy hour setup in the U.S., a country that still floods the space between work and play with 2-for-1 drink deals, and proof that there is another path for us.

This confluence of golden-hour light, bitter, low-alcohol drinks, bruschette piled high, a picturesque square and, importantly, the end of the workday, is truly far more than the sum of its parts. It is a state of mind.

“Aperitivo was an entrance into Italian culture for me,” says Joe Campanale, the owner of the New York’s Alta Linea and a partner in dell’anima, L’Artusi and Anfora.

At his latest project, he’s fittingly embracing aperitivo culture, spurred by the recent boom of interest in these cocktails and the ingredients that typify them, notably bitter Italian liqueurs. Opened last year, Alta Linea, a seasonal (May through October) restaurant and bar on New York’s High Line, fills a gap that many bars don’t—it puts the drinks in their rightful context, alongside small bites, in a setting that seeks to ferry someone as far away from the workday as possible. And it joins a small but growing number of bars looking to do the same, among them, New York’s Dante, Seattle’s Barnacle and Portland’s Americano.

“The dirty secret in Italy is that they may have the atmosphere down, but most don’t care about making cocktails,” says Campanale. “So, we took the idea of relaxing in a beautiful, Old World space and the New York way of making craft cocktails with high-end ingredients, and combined them.”

In Italy, the menu of aperitivo drinks is typically brief, with lo-fi cocktails like the Aperol Spritz, the Negroni Sbagliato, the Garibaldi and the Bicicletta more or less running the show. At Alta Linea, you’ll find most of these staples, but in that nod to New York ingenuity, Campanale has expanded the repertoire. Here, drinks like the Blood Moon (amaro, Fever Tree tonic, lemon juice and orange bitters) and frozen takes on the Negroni and the Sgroppino (a mix of vodka, lemon sorbet and prosecco), are served alongside a menu of snacks that would typically be served during aperitivo hour in Italy, from fried artichokes to arancini.

But for Campanale, it was less about recreating the aperitivo exactly as you might encounter it in Italy and more about translating the feeling of aperitivo.

“When I saw the [Alta Linea] space, with the old church rising up behind, with a courtyard in front and hedges blocking the space from the street, it felt like closest thing we could get to an Italian piazza,” says Campanale, “and a good starting point for a concept based on leisure.”

It’s a far cry from the typical happy hour setup in the U.S., a country that still floods the space between work and play with 2-for-1 drink deals, and proof that there is another path for us.

Though rules and relaxation are not a compatible pair, it’s helpful to keep in mind a simple trifecta when recreating aperitivo stateside: outdoors (weather permitting); low-alcohol, bitter drinks; and simple snacks you can execute for a group. Truly, “less is more.” It’s a motto with no author, but if it had one, he or she would definitely be Italian.

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