“Snack” is one of the greatest words in the English language. Full of promise, it implies salty, crunchy, satisfying things to come. While the allure of the snack is cemented in childhood, it reaches its apex later in life, when it meets the cocktail. Of course, the amorous Italians have this combination practically coded into their collective DNA.
They call it aperitivo.
Across Italy, in the crescent of space between work and play, snacks and cocktails are indelibly coupled in the tradition of aperitivo—an Italian ritual that transcends its moment. It is a state of mind, an embrace of leisure in its purest form.
In the well-drinking municipalities that make up the spritz belt that stretches across northern Italy—Turin, Milan, Brescia, Trento, Padua, Venice and Trieste—aperitivo manifests in regionally specific styles. Alongside the omnipresent Aperol Spritz, an endless spread of small savory bites is paraded out to conclude the day’s work and whet the appetite.
In Venice, it’s cicchetti (derived from the word ciccus, which means “small quantity”). Crostini topped with baccalà mantecato (creamy whipped cod), sardines preserved in piquant vinegar and fried or grilled seafood can be spotted on tables in courtyards and piazzas throughout the lagoon city. In contrast, Milan’s mode of aperitivo draws from its international population, and food—often laid out buffet-style, ranging from squares of pizza to pastas to wedges of cheese and sliced meats—is sometimes included in the price of a drink.
Rules for Aperitivo
Salt liberally. There’s a reason for the olive in the Venetian take on the spritz; the aperitivo spread is an extension of that idea. Salty snacks provoke thirst, which the combination of citrus and bubble quenches, while bitters open the appetite. Keep that in mind when pairing with the bittersweet Aperol Spritz.
Size bites. Aperitivo food should, in most cases, be easy to eat with one’s hands and in one or two bites. Use skewers to stack roasted vegetables or grilled seafood. Supply toothpicks and small plates for grazers and small bowls for olive pits, shrimp shells and the like.
Simple does it. Aperitivo is not meant to be dinner (though it isn’t uncommon for dinner to be replaced by a particularly long aperitivo session). This is still meant to be a cocktail hour, so all food should encourage socializing, not restrict it. An artfully constructed cheese plate or classic tramezzini around which conversation can take place is ideal.
Regardless of which variation appeals to you, recreating the ritual of Italian aperitivo is no different from gathering a smattering of good snacks and good friends, splashing Prosecco, Aperol and soda water into a glass over ice and embracing a moment that asks, principally, that you let your hair down.
Aperitivo food can be as basic as chips and olives, or as elaborate as an array of delicately arranged crostini. The key is to keep things simple and classic.
The best basic aperitivo spreads are a trifecta of olives, nuts and potato chips. With a bit of polishing—oven-roasting olives, simmering nuts with saffron oil, hand-frying chips—aperitivo essenziale is transformed from elemental snack into elevated grazing. Wrap grissini with tangy marinated radicchio and prosciutto and lay out oil-preserved anchovies for a bit of extra visual flair.
When seeking more substantial bites—something to deafen the proverbial buzz—Milan’s mondeghili, homey fried meatballs, are a satiating option. Filled with simmered beef or veal shank and fried until crisp, mondeghili are essentially arancini with meat in place of rice.
Miniature crustless sandwiches, called tramezzini in Italy, can be found at any hour of the day throughout the country, from airports to gas stations to cocktail bars. Supposedly born in the café culture of Turin in the 1920s, the word is meant to sound like a combination of triangolo (triangle), tra (between) and mezzo (middle), and they are best served alongside an Aperol Spritz. Slice the edges off good white sandwich bread and layer in any combination of meats, cheeses and pickled vegetables, plus creamy Italian pesto or mayonnaise.
And lastly, when in doubt, lean on crostini: sliced pieces of baguette, toasted and topped with whatever your heart desires. Classic toppings include white beans and herbs or liver pâté.
On the Fly
The Italian pantry has, for centuries, provided a rich tapestry of readymade aperitivi. The essenziale can be cobbled together with high-quality elements and dressed up a bit—tossing olives with some citrus zest and herbs, for example—but a small feast can be created of store-bought preserved vegetables, cured meats, olive oil crackers and a hunk of good, salty cheese.
Specialty food stores will often stock interesting preserves, like Maida grilled artichokes in oil from Campania or these Sicilian anchovy-stuffed red peppers (they’re expensive, but worth it). Pair them with some Talllegio or (preferably “and”) Pecorino alongside condiments like pesto and mostarda. Toss in a couple of simple cured meats—Genoese sausage, mortadella, prosciutto di Parma—and a hunk of bread that can be torn into pieces on the table, and consider the aperitivo started.