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Travel is all about experiencing new things, and with our guide to aperitivo in Italy, complete with customs, fun facts, and popular food and drinks, you can get excited and educated about one of Italy’s most beloved customs and try it for yourself when you visit.
Guided by Roxana, a passionate foodie and writer who has lived in Rome for over two decades, together let’s discover all about aperitivo in Italy and why it is so important.
Aperitivo in Italy: Customs, Fun Facts, and Most Popular Food and Drinks
Italian Aperitivo Customs
Aperitivo takes place right before dinner
The first thing to know about Italian aperitivo is that there’s a specific time for it, generally a couple of hours before dinner. While exact times can vary, it generally doesn’t start before 5.30 PM and ends no later than 8.30 PM.
Different bars and aperitivo spots may have their own hours, often starting around 6 PM. During this time, they might even offer discounted drinks and a buffet spread, which I’ll cover below.
Aperitivo consists of a drink and small bites
The aperitivo is an easy-to-follow formula: have a drink with some tasty finger food or small bites. There’s a wide range of drinks to choose from, including classic aperitivo cocktails, wine, or even non-alcoholic options like fruit juice or mocktails.
When it comes to aperitivo food, it can vary depending on which Italian region you’re in and whether you’re having it at home or a bar. Even bars have different aperitivo options available.
You might get a drink with a few snacks like olives and chips, or you could opt for a board with various finger foods. Alternatively, you could go all out and choose from a generous and varied buffet.
Buffet aperitivo is the most popular option
Italians’ favorite aperitivo option is the buffet. Many bars serve this, and it’s ideal if you want to eat a bit more than just olives and peanuts. The buffet offers a range of options and allows you to refill your plate as many times as you’d like.
Bars that provide the buffet aperitivo typically have a fixed price that includes a drink and unlimited food from the buffet. You can grab plates of delicious treats and serve yourself. If you have a late aperitivo, it can even serve as a substitute for dinner.
Aperitivo is common for celebrations and special events
If you want to celebrate a special occasion in Italy but dinner sounds too formal, make it an aperitivo. The informal and lively aperitivo is the perfect time to gather with friends and toast to an achievement or a special day, be it a birthday or a work promotion.
Aperitivo celebrations are great because they are accessible to almost everyone. Italians often have aperitivo after work, before returning home for dinner.
Even those who have dinner plans or prefer to dine with their families can still join in on the festivities. Plus, if you’re footing the bill, it’s much more convenient!
Interesting Facts about Italian Aperitivo
Aperitivo has ancient origins
Aperitivo in Italy has a fascinating history. The origins of the drink date to Ancient Rome. Before dinner, Romans would drink mulsum, a drink made with wine and honey, usually accompanied by gustus, which were appetizers. The purpose of this habit was to stimulate hunger. The Latin word aperitivus means “that opens,” indicating opening the appetite.
Furthermore, back in the 5th century BCE, Hippocrates would prescribe to his patients that suffered from lack of appetite a drink of his own making, called vinum hippocraticum, consisting of wine with the addition of dittany flowers, wormwood, and rue. This seems to be the origin of bitter aperitifs that are so popular in aperitivo cocktails.
The aperitivo as we know it today dates to 18th-century Turin and the invention of vermouth. The aromatized, fortified wine became the base of many cocktails served by bars in the hours before dinner.
The drinks were accompanied by snacks and small bites of local products, giving birth to the aperitivo we have all come to know and love.
From its beginnings, aperitivo has been about more than just enjoying a drink before dinner. Italian aperitivo is, first and foremost, a social gathering. It’s an opportunity for friends to gather and socialize or for coworkers to relax after a long work day.
You probably already know that in Italy, eating together and being social is a big part of their culinary culture. Aperitivo is a perfect example of this – it’s all about having fun and enjoying good company.
Having a refreshing drink and a few bites is great, but what makes aperitivo such a joyful experience is sharing it with friends.
Aperol Spritz is the most popular drink
If there’s one drink that represents Italian aperitivo, it must be Aperol Spritz. The refreshing and vibrant orange cocktail made with the bitter aperitif Aperol, prosecco, and soda is Italians’ favorite drink.
Go out in any city around aperitivo time, possibly in areas with a vibrant atmosphere and many bars, and you’ll notice glasses of Aperol Spritz on nearly every table. Italians and foreigners alike love this drink as it’s the perfect balance of sweetness and bitterness. Be sure to try it on your next trip to Italy.
“Apericena” is an upgrade of the aperitivo
Aperitivo has evolved over the years, giving birth to a new meal type: apericena. The word is a blend of aperitivo and cena (dinner), which is exactly what it represents.
The apericena was initially born as “aperitivo alla Milanese” since it first appeared in Milan. This is nothing other than an aperitivo with a lot more food, generally buffet, that can replace dinner. In the rest of Italy, we still simply call it aperitivo, but we eat enough, so there’s no need for dinner.
If you want a very light aperitivo, you can simply get a drink and a small bowl of olives. Green olives are the most popular to serve with aperitivo as they pair well with cocktails and wines, but black olives are great too. Whatever the type, olives add a delightful Mediterranean touch to any aperitivo.
Another delightful and simple treat, the crunchy potato chips are a staple of the Italian aperitivo, and for good reason.
Who can resist some crispy, flavorful chips? The simple, salted variety is the most popular, as it pairs well with any drink, but you may find other options too.
For a tasty and nutritious aperitivo treat, enjoy some nuts. From peanuts and salted almonds to cashew nuts or pistachios, you have several options. With their crunchy texture, these savory treats are healthy and delicious, making the perfect addition to any aperitivo.
No Italian aperitivo would be complete without a bruschetta. This simple yet tasty appetizer consists of grilled bread traditionally topped with chopped tomatoes, olive oil, basil, and optional garlic. The origins of the bruschetta go back to Ancient Rome when olive growers used bread for olive oil tasting.
The tomato bruschetta, which is the most widespread variety, originated somewhere between Latium and Tuscany. Aside from the traditional bruschetta, you can find many alternatives topped with cured meats, vegetables, and spreads.
Cold cuts are another traditional food for aperitivo. It’s common for places to serve cold cut boards with a glass of wine or cocktail.
These boards usually contain a variety of cured meats, including prosciutto crudo (cured ham), salami, mortadella, pancetta arrotolata (rolled bacon), and capocollo (a dry-cured pork cut). You can have a board with just cold cuts or a mix of cold cuts and cheese.
Cheese boards are also highly popular for aperitivo, especially paired with a glass of red wine. These boards usually contain a mix of soft, semi-hard, and hard cheese, including brie, gorgonzola, asiago, fontina, pecorino, and parmesan. They often come with honey and fruits, such as grapes or figs.
If you ever go to a bar that serves an aperitivo buffet, one thing you’ll find for sure is pizza. But don’t expect to find whole pizzas. You’ll usually find either small squares of pizza or round mini pizzas, called pizzette in Italian.
Aperitivo pizza can have various toppings, but they are usually quite simple, like Margherita, mozzarella and zucchini, potatoes, or just tomato sauce.
Cold pasta salads are another common addition to an aperitivo buffet. These salads contain a mix of various vegetables, mozzarella cheese, tuna, olives, or ham.
Since this is only one of the many foods you’ll find on the buffet, you’re only supposed to add a small portion to your plate, to leave space for other delicious treats.
Small bites of frittata make for another delicious addition to your aperitivo plate. Frittata is like an omelet, except it usually contains vegetables or other ingredients besides eggs. Popular frittata varieties for aperitivo may contain zucchini, asparagus, spinach, or potatoes.
Veggies are always a good idea, so it’s no surprise you’ll find plenty in an aperitivo menu. Aperitivo veggies can come in many shapes and forms, including baked, grilled, and fried.
One popular way of serving vegetables for aperitivo in Italy is in a crispy batter, or as you may know them, tempura vegetables. Carrots, broccoli, zucchini, and asparagus are great options for this.
Arancini are rice balls stuffed with various ingredients, traditionally ragù (Bolognese), coated in breadcrumbs, and deep fried. These indulging treats are a staple of Sicilian cuisine, but you can find them throughout Italy.
For the aperitivo, mini arancini are ideal. A regular-sized arancino is the size of a fist, so you would be almost full after eating one. Other popular fillings include peas, ham and mozzarella, pistachio, and eggplant.
Fried foods are a staple of any aperitivo, so croquettes are simple and delicious finger food. The most popular croquettes are filled with mashed potatoes and are better served hot.
Another type of delicious croquette is the Italian version of mozzarella sticks, called “mozzarelline fritte,” or deep-fried cherry mozzarella balls. Lastly, you may have olive ascolane. These are breaded, deep-fried olives stuffed with minced meat.
The list of tasty Italian aperitivo foods continues with a variety of baked goods. These are puff pastry treats filled or topped with various ingredients, called salatini in Italian.
Salatini can vary greatly depending on the region, but generally, you can find them filled with tomato, spinach and ricotta, ham, or cheese.
Another kind of finger food you’ll find at an aperitivo buffet is tramezzini. The small sandwiches are made with soft white bread without the crust and filled with ingredients like ham and cheese, tomato and mozzarella, tuna, or egg salad.
Lastly, you may have various types of quiche for aperitivo. While this is not a traditional Italian food, the quiche is widespread throughout the Mediterranean country.
A quiche is an open-faced savory tart made with a pie crust shell, filled with various ingredients. A traditional recipe is the Quiche Lorraine, with a filling of cream, eggs, and bacon. Other popular fillings include spinach, asparagus, or zucchini.
Alcoholic Aperitivo Drinks
Aperol Spritz is by far the most popular aperitivo drink in Italy. This vibrant orange cocktail is refreshing and flavorful, combining the sweet and slightly bitter taste of the Aperol with the frizzy prosecco and soda and the fresh orange. The drink is perfect on a warm summer evening.
The Barbieri brothers created the Aperol Spritz in Padua in 1919, although varieties of the drink date back to the 1800s, specifically to the Austrian soldiers’ practice of combining wine with water. In fact, in Austria, you can order a spritzer, which is a glass of white wine with club soda.
The Campari Spritz is a popular alternative to the Aperol Spritz. The drink mixes red Campari, a liqueur created in 1860 by Gaspare Campari, with prosecco and soda water. The result is a refreshing drink with a vibrant red color, more bitter than the Aperol Spritz.
The Campari is a renowned Italian bitter made of herbs and fruits, although the exact recipe remains a secret to this day. The liqueur is a base for many other cocktails. If you are a fan of spritz and want to try something other than Aperol, Campari Spritz is a great choice.
First created in the 1930s in the iconic Harry’s Bar in Venice by Giuseppe Cipriani, the Bellini gained immediate recognition in Italy, and shortly after in the US, at Harry’s Bar in New York City.
The cocktail only contains two ingredients: prosecco and peach purée. The drink is served chilled, without adding ice. Given its simplicity and versatility, the cocktail can be served at any time of the day, including aperitivo.
Hugo is a recent addition to the list of Italian cocktails. The drink first appeared in 2005 at San Zeno Bar, in a small town in South Tyrol. The cocktail was born as an alternative to the classic Spritz, made with elderflower syrup, prosecco, and sparkling water and garnished with fresh mint and optional lime.
The cocktail became a favorite in South Tyrol and quickly spread through Italy and internationally. If you want a refreshing drink with floral notes for your aperitivo, order the Hugo.
The list of cocktails that are appropriate for aperitivo could be endless. For every place you go, you’ll find new and unique options. Most places will serve the classics, while others may add a twist to the original recipes or even serve their house cocktails.
Many bars will serve classics such as Americano, made with Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda water, or the Negroni, a variation of the Americano that replaces the soda with gin.
For a lighter drink, you can opt for a Campari Soda, which is just soda water with Campari and an optional slice of orange. You can even find this ready-made, sold in small bottles.
If you’re not up for a cocktail, you can order a chilled white wine glass, which pairs great with all aperitivo foods. The options here are pretty much endless, too. Each region will serve local wines along with some classics.
The ideal white wines for aperitivo are fresh, fruity, and aromatic. The most popular white wines for aperitivo in Northern Italy are Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Müller-Thurgau. In the south, popular options are Falanghina, Grillo, Inzolia, and Malvasia.
Red wines are more popular for dinner than for aperitivo, but they are a great alternative to white wine, especially in the colder seasons. While the white wine is refreshing and ideal on warm summer days, full-bodied red wines are great to warm up on winter days.
Some popular red wine choices that you’ll come across throughout Italy are Sangiovese, Merlot, Montepulciano, Bardolino, and Pinot Nero. If you prefer sparkling wine, go for a glass of sweet Lambrusco.
Prosecco deserves a separate mention, being such a popular aperitivo drink in Italy. The sparkling white wine is produced in the Northern Italian region of Prosecco, in Veneto, and ranks high on the list of beloved aperitivo drinks. However, its versatility makes it a perfect drink for many occasions.
The crisp, fruity Prosecco is available in different varieties, from the brut (very dry) to the sweeter demi-sec. The price range of prosecco can vary greatly depending on the type, from more affordable Prosecco DOC to the superior Prosecco DOCG and Millesimato (with grapes from a single year).
Non-Alcoholic Aperitivo Drinks
Crodino is THE alcohol-free aperitivo drink. The bitter aperitif was first introduced on the Italian market in 1964, and since then, it has become popular in many other countries.
The drink, made with a blend of herbs, spices, and fruit extracts, comes in small glass bottles and can be served on the rocks with a slice of orange. The bitter is also a great base for the alcohol-free spritz, made with club soda or tonic water and orange juice.
Cedrata is another popular aperitivo drink for those looking for alcohol-free options. Made from citron, a citrus fruit popular in the Mediterranean area, the cedrata is an aromatic and refreshing drink with a vibrant yellow color.
Cedrata is typically served on ice with a twist of lemon or some fresh mint. If you’re craving the refreshing taste of Italian citrus, order a cedrata to pair with your aperitivo food.
San Pellegrino Aranciata
You may have heard of San Pellegrino water, especially if you’ve already been to Italy, but you may not know that the company also makes its sparkling orange beverage, the aranciata. San Pellegrino created the drink in 1932 with 100% natural ingredients. While it may sound like orange soda, it’s healthier.
You can find San Pellegrino Aranciata in most places across Italy, both aperitivo bars and supermarkets, if you want to have an aperitivo at home.
If you want a non-sparkling, non-alcoholic drink to enjoy for aperitivo, order iced tea. While this may not be among the most popular choices, it’s a valid alternative to other non-alcoholic drinks.
Some places serve homemade iced tea, but you can usually order bottled or canned iced tea. The most popular iced tea brands in Italy are Estathe and Lipton. They come in different flavors, the most popular being lemon and peach.
If you’re searching for alcohol-free, healthy aperitivo drinks, fruit juices are your choice. Italy boasts a variety of fresh fruits that grow throughout the year, ensuring you can always find fresh juice options.
Bottled natural juices are also available as an alternative to freshly made juices. These juices come in small glass bottles and are available in a wide variety of fruit options, including peach, orange, pear, blueberries, and apple.
Lastly, you can always order a non-alcoholic version of your favorite cocktail. Most places will serve alcohol-free cocktails, offering a variety of classic and original ones.
Popular alcohol-free cocktails you can order for aperitivo in Italy are Virgin Mojito, Virgin Bellini, Hugo Mocktail, or Virgin Spritz. However, allow yourself to experiment with original cocktail mixes. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Aperitivo is iconic to Italian culture, and as you can see from our guide, it is a huge part of how Italians spend their time with friends and family.
No matter where you are in Italy, you can enjoy aperitivo in some way, shape, and form. Embrace it, enjoy a few sunsets from bars and restaurants with it, and even see if you can make some local friends!
You Might Also Like to Read
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- 35 Cool and Interesting Facts about Italy and Italians
- 26 Best Mediterranean Foods You Need in Your Life
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Contributor: Roxana Fanaru is a journalist and writer who has lived in Rome for nearly two decades. She is deeply passionate about Italian cuisine, culture, and travel and writes for a number of publications.