Last Updated on September 25, 2023 by Jo Fitzsimons
I remember the first time I visited Treviso, a city close to Italy’s Prosecco Region. I was in the area exploring some new vineyards and restaurants to add to our Prosecco tours. After a long winter, it was once again warm enough to enjoy the terrace, and, with work done for the week, I finally had time to catch up with a friend I’d been neglecting. In that gentle part of the late afternoon, with dinner on the horizon and the light softening into dusk, I sat with a glass of Aperol Spritz, my friend opposite, a plate of nibbles between us, and I sighed with content. This is aperitivo.
What is Aperitivo?
If you prefer a more technical definition, aperitivo is an Italian drink served before dinner to stimulate the appetite or ‘open’ the stomach. In fact, the very word aperitivo stems from the Latin word aperite which means ‘to open’. But over time, aperitivo has become much more than an appetite whetting drink. It’s become an essential part of Italian culture. It represents a time to unwind after a long day of work, a moment to catch up with family and friends, to share a drink, and grab a small snack while you do it.
And if you’re visiting Italy, and want to embrace this deep-rooted tradition, you should definitely add aperitivo to your list.
A bit intimidated by how to do it? Don’t worry. I’m going to share everything you need to know to enjoy aperitivo when you’re in Italy (and how to recreate it at home if your next Italy trip is some way off).
Interested in Italian food culture? You might also like our guide to: How To Eat Italian Breakfast Like A Local.
Where to enjoy Aperitivo?
There are so many places in Italy to enjoy aperitivo. It originated in the north of the country, and it is more popular there, but these days you’ll find it in most cities and towns, even as you head south. The obvious spot to try it is a local bar, but also many cafes will serve aperitivo before shutting up for the night. More glamorous options include classic cocktail bars, sunset spots and roof terraces.
Personally, I suggest heading to a bar because it’s the best way to see how aperitivo is truly done. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans‘ can easily be expanded to ‘when in Italy, aperitivo like the Italians’.
When is Aperitivo?
There isn’t a specific time for aperitivo but it’s generally enjoyed between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. That might seem like a big window of time but it will differ depending where you are, and is largely related to when the working day ends. In busy cities, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. is more likely while 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. is more common in smaller towns and villages. You can expect longer hours in tourist areas. The best way to find out is to ask at your hotel when you arrive.
What to drink during Aperitivo
Remembering that the tradition of aperitivo is to stimulate the stomach, there are specific aperitivo drinks in Italy. Typically, the drink is alcoholic and includes bitter liquers like Campari and Aperol. Vermouth, a fortified wine infused with herbs, was one of the traditional aperitivo drinks and is still available. However, as time has passed and tastes have changed, the list of popular aperitivo drinks has expanded to include cocktails. That said, even cocktails still lean towards tradition with bitters featuring heavily.
The most popular aperitivo drinks are:
- Aperol Spritz – Aperol bitters with Prosecco and soda water.
- Aperol and soda – a lighter version of a Spritz, without the Prosecco.
- Campari and soda – a bitter liqueur with notes of orange and cinnamon.
- Vermouth – a fortified wine flavoured with herbs.
- Prosecco – Italian sparkling wine.
- White wine – try one of our favourite Italian wines.
- Negroni – a cocktail of gin and Campari.
- Negroni sbagliato – a lighter version where Prosecco replaces the gin.
- Crodino – a non-alcoholic drink with orange bitters.
What to eat during Aperitivo
I don’t know about you, but if I have to wait until 9 p.m. for dinner while sipping cocktails, I’m likely to be the worse for wear. Enter: aperitivo appetizers. Most aperitivo will offer a selection of light snacks and finger foods that you can nibble on while you drink.
Popular aperitivo appetizers include:
- Italian cheese.
- Cured meats.
- Salted nuts or crisps (American chips).
- Small pizza bites.
- Marinated vegetables.
- Mini bowls of pasta.
Do you have to pay for the food during aperitivo?
Aperitivo will differ from place to place. Sometimes the waiter will bring a small plate of food to your table with your drink. Sometimes, there’s literally a buffet of appetizers to choose from and you help yourself. Most of the time the snacks are included in the price of your drink. However, it pays to check, especially in tourist spots like Venice. Either ask your server or check the menu outside. In most cases, the price of drinks are increased a couple of euros during aperitivo hours to cover the cost of the ‘free’ food. Usually it’s a good deal as the snacks are generous. You can expect prices around €8 – €10 per drink, and a little cheaper outside cities and tourist regions.
Is Aperitivo the same as Happy Hour?
Yes and no. Yes in terms of timing – aperitivo and Happy Hour typically happen in those hours before dinner. However, don’t expect discounted drinks, jugs of cocktails or 2-for-1 deals like you might in the UK or the USA.
Another big difference is that Happy Hour is used by some as a chance for quick drinks at cheap prices before a bigger night out. Aperitivo is a much quieter affair, a way to draw a line between the day and the family meal to come.
Tips for enjoying Aperitivo like an Italian
Here are some insider tips for how to enjoy aperitivo Italian-style:
- If there is a buffet, good etiquette is to take one small plate of appetizers per drink. Want more food? Buy another drink.
- Don’t fill up on snacks – Italian dinner is one of the best parts of that day and you don’t want to be too full to enjoy it. Trust me, I’ve been there.
- Try at least one of the ‘bitters’ drinks, even if you’re usually a beer or wine person. You might find your dinner sits better later on.
- But if you really hate bitters, know you can order whatever drink you like.
- Go ‘bar shopping’ – look around, compare the offerings and see what suits. For some it’s great drinks, others the location, some want the atmosphere and others prefer the snacks.
- Negroni (and even Aperol spritz) can be surprisingly alcoholic yet easy to drink. Pace yourself if you want to remember your aperitivo in the morning (and don’t want to be scrambling around for hangover foods).
- If you’re in a tourist hub, try to find a smaller establishment off the beaten path – it’s a great way to support local businesses.
- Ask the staff in your hotel where they recommend for authentic aperitivo.
- Try to keep your phone off the table. It’s a time for chatting not snapping and sharing. The hour or two offline will do you good, promise. (Ok, fine. One post, then put it away. Don’t forget to tag us: #visitproseccoitaly).
How to enjoy Aperitivo at home
I love enjoying aperitivo at home, especially on a Friday night after a long week. If you’re already in the habit of opening a bottle of Prosecco or wine, it doesn’t take much extra effort. I usually assemble my aperitivo based on what’s in my fridge or cupboards. Here are some tips for enjoying aperitivo at home:
- Set a time that works with your usual dinner time i.e. a couple of hours before. I like 5 p.m.
- Invite a friend/partner/neighbour/pet (or hey, just have some great ‘me’ time).
- Choose an Italian drink, ideally with bitters. My go-to is Aperol Spritz. Here are our favourite easy Prosecco cocktail recipes to help.
- Prepare a small plate or platter of snacks. I usually have crisps, nuts, olives and cheese like Parmesan. Anything larger or more bread-based makes me too full for dinner.
- Sit. Sip. Chat. Relax.
It’s as simple as that. But if you want to elevate things, or invite a group of friends and make a night of it, you can add a few fun extras:
- Stream your Italian travel photos on your TV or tablet in the background.
- Pop on an aperitivo playlist – there are so many to choose from on Spotify (I’m listening to one right now!).
- Extend your evening to include a wine tasting with our guide: 7 Simple Steps To Host a Wine Tasting at Home
- If you’ve opened a bottle of Prosecco, pair it with dinner using our Ultimate Prosecco Food and Wine Pairing Guide. Pizza goes really well, as does Thai food.
- Go into full Italy theme mode and get some Italian pastries ready to enjoy on Saturday morning (hopefully without a hangover).
What’s the difference between an aperitif and digestif
One final note, because this question confuses a lot of people – what’s the difference between an aperitif and a digestif? It’s simpler than you think. An aperitif is a drink served before dinner to stimulate the appetite.
Meanwhile, a digestif is an drink you have after dinner to help your digestion. Digestifs are typically strong Italian liqueurs, but that’s a who different topic that I’ll save for another day.
That’s my guide to Italian aperitivo. Got any comments or questions, leave a note below.
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