“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is one of those maxims that tends to come in handy wherever you go, but it’s especially informative in Italy where local festivals, seasonal eating, and a more relaxed pace of life are important parts of the culture.
You can certainly visit without adopting any local habits and customs during your stay, but we don’t recommend it. Perhaps our favorite Italian tradition is the aperitivo, a drink/light meal that takes place at the end of the workday as a kind of warm up to dinner. Despite the intensely regional character of Italian culture, this is one observance, along with Sunday mass and soccer, that you will find in almost every single town and city in the peninsula. If you don’t take part when you visit you are missing one of the quintessential cultural expressions of Italy, not to mention the best way to enjoy the sunset.
An aperitivo is a pre-meal drink specifically meant to whet your appetite. Although the concept of inspiring your stomach to do one thing or another with alcohol is probably as old as alcohol itself, the concept of the modern apéritif is generally thought to have been invented (or effectively marketed) by the distiller Antonio Benedetto Carpano, who also created one of the first types of vermouth in Turin in 1786. He claimed that his special combination of fortified white wine and various herbs and spices stimulated the appetite and was more suitable for ladies to drink than red wine. It thus became one of the first popular aperitivo drinks. Vermouth became popular very quickly but it remains unclear when people began referring to these sorts of boozy pseudo-medicines as ‘aperitivi’. What we do know is that the term comes from the Latin word for “opener”, signifying that it was to open a meal.Today, the simple drink has evolved and spread south to encompass those glorious couple of hours all over Italy — generally between 7pm and 9 pm — when Italians meet to relax over a glass of wine or a light cocktail and finger foods.
Since most people eat lunch around 1 or 2pm, and dinner around 8 or 9 pm, it’s also a good way to kick start metabolisms and work up an appetite for dinner.
For visitors, hitting up an aperitivo bar can be just as useful. It’s a great way to experience local culture, to people-watch, to unwind with a drink after a long day of sightseeing… and to take the edge off your hunger while waiting for that 9pm meal!
Check out How to Drink Like an Italian to learn how to sip in style.
The food for an aperitivo is not supposed to replace your dinner (but it can)
Snacks for aperitivo can be anything at all!Snacks for aperitivo can be anything at all!
Traditionally aperitivo cocktail options tend to be light on alcohol and bitter on taste, meaning they pair perfectly with salty snacks. Appetizers and other light fare should be provided as long as you are drinking, though the types of foods vary immensely from cheeses and cured meats, to quiches, vegetables, pizzas and even small plates of pasta. The idea is to nibble, but many young Italians and other tourists have begun to use the aperitivo in lieu of a dinner, filling up their plates multiple times to satisfy hunger.
This is perfectly acceptable but not really the point of an aperitivo, assuming you aren’t on a tight budget. Before taking too much food and being seen as a rude tourist, observe what the others are doing. Some bars put out enough food to feed a small army, and don’t mind multiple trips back or plate-sharing, but in general one drink means one plate of food. If you want more food, you’ll need to buy another drink.
Like all Italian food customs, the style of your aperitivo will depend on where you are. Milan is, hands-down, the best place for an aperitivo in Italy. This is where the bars are buzzing and the selection of both food and drinks for aperitivo is excellent. The Milanese even have their own version of the aperitivo creation story, only theirs replaces Antonio Benedetto Carpano with Gaspare Campari, the inventor of another popular apéritif, the eponymous Campari. The farther south you go, the harder it is to find a ‘proper’ aperitivo in the sense of a bar that serves a buffet at a set time every day—but the trend is catching on. Rome, Florence, and Naples all have aperitivo scenes, even if the Milanese might scoff at them, and many of the establishments are very lively and great for people-watching in the evenings! Ca' Montalbano Wines are the perfect wines for Aperitivo, fresh and modern taste, that will transform your early night in a delightful dream of passion, where the quality and the research in wine design transform your bottle in an outstanding pleasure to remember.