“The thing I love about Italian drinking is the fact that there’s always going to be a bite, whether entertaining in someone’s home or out after world,” says Ruby Wilson, the Northern California Portfolio Ambassador for MARTINI & ROSSI® . The tradition of aperitivo, whether in Italy or abroad, has always been about combining the leisure of drinking among friends and family with the comfort of a salty snack. Today, in the U.S., the style has pivoted from minimalism—the simple potato chip or olive bowl—for a maximalist spread that is all about abundance.
For Meg Quinn, author of the recent The Cheese Board Deck: 50 Cards for Styling Spreads, Savory and Sweet, the beauty of the maximalist spread is its showpiece aspect. “[It’s an] edible piece of art and often acts as an element of a tablescape.” Today’s current entertaining zeitgeist encourages a spirit of more is more—a beautiful board filled with a spread of not just cheese and charcuterie, but a rainbow of fruits, nuts, dips and all means of accoutrements. It’s a style that seems to the reflect the comfort perhaps craved from the experience of being at home, among loved ones. In this particular moment, aperitivo hour is bound to be an experience of plenty.
For Wilson, the spirit of gathering around food and drink is about connecting with friends. “In Italy, the drinks aren’t often the center of the party. Having food gives you the ability to stay out a little longer, have a couple extra drinks and more time with friends.” Writer and educator Christine Clark of Your Cheese Friend also thinks about building an aperitivo spread at home as a point of connection: “It’s a conversation piece and [an] adventure for people to have.”
Here, tips from entertaining, lifestyle and cheese experts on building a better, most impressive, maximalist aperitivo spread.
Acid and sweetness are important to counter the richer elements of cheese and meat. Gwen Gu and Sallie Miller of Miracle Plum, a general store, wine shop and café in Santa Rosa, say, “We like fresh fruit, jam or honey drizzled over a soft cheese. Pickles cut the richness of everything else, act as a palate cleanser and keep folks engaged in the spread.” For Clark, fresh-cut cheese is always the best kind of cheese: “Cheese is a living thing. Even the best, most award-winning cheese won’t taste as good when it’s been tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and ignored for weeks,” she says. It may be more expensive, but in the long run, you’re paying for handmade quality.
Gu and Miller think about their spreads as a matrix. “Three cheeses: soft, hard, stinky. Something sweet, something salty. A pop of color,” they recommend. “It makes it easy, so you are not reinventing the wheel every time.” Quinn believes in including fresh and dried produce, a variety of crackers and a spread-like accoutrement like honeycomb, quince paste or fancy mustard.
Quinn recommends using every inch of the board, and filling in gaps with “layers of tasty items to make a delicious, overflowing and eye-catching platter.” (Since soft items like ripe fruit and oozy cheese can migrate across surfaces, Clark likes to give them their own ramekins or jars.)
The Element of Surprise
The perfect aperitivo board is elegant, but also interesting. Quinn challenges people to think about color. “Cheese and crackers are primarily whites, beiges, pink and yellows, so be sure add in color with your other items, like produce,” she says. Depending on the season, she’ll mix it up with rich purples (grapes, blueberries), oranges (mimolette, gouda), and reds (strawberries, apples). Gu and Miller insist that texture brings a whole other aspect to a spread—pairing creamy with crunchy, or snappy with smooth. Clark likes to think about thoughtful high-low pairings like potato chips with gooey cheese or dark chocolate with gouda.
Tie it All Together
With such a variety of foods on one plate, including elements that create cohesion is key. Gu and Miller like to include something homemade, whether a special dip, marinated white beans, roasted veggies or a jam. Quinn always adds fresh herbs or flowers, like fresh rosemary or lavender, for garnish—“a small addition of texture and color that can make a big impact, elevating your spread,” she says. Cohesion comes in the form of winning combinations as well. Lately, Clark has been into, “the crunch of Parmigiano Reggiano’s amino acid crystals with crunchy black pepper taralli,” and “smooth, unctuous Brillat Savarin with a drizzle of Bee Raw’s Colorado clover honey,” which she likens to cinnamon toast crunch, in the best way.
Add a Pairing
And what aperitivo spread would be complete without a cocktail? While your board is doing the most, consider keeping the drinks dead-simple. Enter the Milano-Torino, the Negroni’s softer predecessor, sometimes affectionally referred to as the “Mi-To”. Combine equal parts MARTINI & ROSSI Speciale Riserva Rubino and Bitter over ice in a cocktail glass and stir briefly to chill, then garnish with an orange slice. The resulting cocktail channels the bittersweet essence of its’ more spirit-forward sibling, but at a proof that allows your guests to linger, enjoying the moment—and the many snack options before them.