“The food of aperitivo hour is the one thing that really transports me to Italy,” says Missy Robbins, chef and owner of Lilia, Misi and MP. “While I love so many things about Italian lifestyle, this ranks at the top of the list.”
As a tangible concept, aperitivo refers to both the occasion and the drink itself, which is often bittersweet and low-ABV, and sometimes even bubbly. But there’s also the intangible element: the laid-back atmosphere, the in-between moment of daytime proper and imminent evening.
“What I feel is special about it is that it’s very democratic,” says Sara Porro, a food and travel writer based in Milan, of the Italian cultural cornerstone that is aperitivo. “People of every age and social group do it. You can take Grandma out for aperitivo, unless she’s already there with her friends.”
“Aperitivo is the daily occasion for Italian people placed before dinner,” says Fabio Raffaelli, the North American brand ambassador for MARTINI & ROSSI®, who grew up in Milan. “And a kind of social occasion for us, too.” For him, the single rule of the occasion is quite simple: You should drink something with herbs and spices that will open your stomach; not a digestivo, but rather its opposite.
(The concept can confuse the uninitiated. Porro recalls an American friend who would propose going for an aperitivo after dinner. “That’s a nightcap, my friend—or what here in Italy we’d call a bicchiere della staffa, or the ‘stirrup cup.’”)
To complete the ritual, a bit of something to eat is essential, which Raffaelli says is epitomized by small bites. “Not pasta or pizza,” he insists. “These are items we enjoy as a full dinner. Nuts, olives, chips—these are things you find everywhere in Italy.” Robbins seconds that, saying that her aperitivo essentials must include “salty snacks ranging from spicy soppresata to olives, cheese, taralli and nuts.”
Dan Sabo, director of food and beverage at the Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles, agrees that one can’t aperitivo without snacks—but also music. “Even if it’s just an olive in your spritz, you need a nosh,” he says. “And since aperitivo is a mood as much as anything, music is a necessity… It should be totally open to personal preference, but I think those two things are pretty crucial to the process.”
Part of the aperitivo’s universal appeal—the reason it has traveled from northern Italy’s mountain towns and cosmopolitan cities—is its laissez-faire attitude, its pure devotion to slowing down to the pace of lifting a drink and placing it back down again. As Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau write in their book Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, the Italian concept of sprezzatura doesn’t have an English translation, but has a connotation that’s equal parts “the art of concealing art’s design” and an “‘I-woke-up-like-this’ mix of beauty and ease.” This aura is the embodiment of aperitivo, and all the cocktails it encompasses.
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According to Raffaelli, “If you have four bottles, you have the entire repertoire of aperitivo.” First, a red bitter liqueur and an aromatized wine, such as MARTINI & ROSSI Bitter Liqueur and their Rubino or Ambrato Vermouth di Torino; then a bottle of high-quality gin (Raffaelli prefers BOMBAY SAPPHIRE®); and last, a good Italian sparkling wine, like MARTINI & ROSSI Prosecco, Asti or even the sparkling rosé. “With these you can make the Negroni, the Americano, the Vermuttino and all the others,” he says.
Combine equal parts MARTINI & ROSSI Bitter Liqueur, BOMBAY SAPPHIRE® gin and rich, smooth Rubino Vermouth di Torino for the classic Negroni serve. Swap the gin for Prosecco and you have a Negroni Sbagliato, made famous at Bar Basso in Milan; switch the Sbagliato’s sparkling wine for seltzer, and you have the tall, refreshing Americano. For something simpler, consider the Vermuttino, simply a dose of spiced, golden-hued Ambrato Vermouth di Torino swirled with soda water, and garnished with caper berries or a slice of lime.
But Raffaelli also likes to say that the first spritz was nothing more than white wine and soda water, and you don’t need much more than that to recreate the feeling of aperitivo anywhere in the world. “Vermouth and soda with ice, Prosecco with ice and a splash of soda—it’s all refreshing,” he says. And it’s all aperitivo.
“Wherever you have ice, a bottle of [red bitter], some olives and a bag of chips, there you have yourself an aperitivo,” says Porro. For her part, she’s found even more delight in the daily ritual as social occasions have been put on hold. “For me and my partner, personally, aperitivo at home became one of the few things which pointed at the time passing and roughly divided our days between work and leisure.” Sabo agrees that one of his biggest challenges has been separating work and home life when they occupy the same space: “Having an aperitivo has been a go-to as that delineator, a cue that we have moved [on] from work…even though we’re in the same room, at the same table.” In the last year, this reliable, accessible luxury has come to gain added meaning in ways that have been unexpected and wholly necessary, but always—as it’s meant to be—deeply comforting.