In practice it is both drink and food. The fundamental idea of Italian aperitivo is that you order a drink and receive complimentary food. That food may be a fistful of olives, or it may be a no-kidding smorgasbord. Isn’t that amazing?
Let’s talk about drinks, then about food.
A Simple Bar for Aperitivo
Amari. If you can buy only one bottle of liqueur for aperitivo, it should be Campari. Campari is a bitter liqueur of about 25% ABV, flavoured with obscure herbs and fruit (eg chinotto, the myrtle-leaved orange tree). It was invented in Novara, Piedmont, by Gaspare Campari. It was first produced en masse outside Milan, and has become affiliated with that city.
Campari is a bright, cherry red. Slightly viscous. It has an intense, smoky bitterness, and is syrupy-sweet.
Campari can be taken on the rocks, diluted with soda or fruit juice, or mixed into proper cocktails.
Vermouth. Vermouth is fortified wine flavoured with botanicals, which is a fancy way of saying plants. It can be bone dry or quite sweet. I think the most common brand is Cinzano (chin-ZAHN-o), especially their sweet, red (“Rosso”) vermouth.
Cinzano Rosso is 15% ABV and has a medium red colour with a russet hue. It has a medium-intense aroma of herbs. It is sweet with a bright, balancing acidity.
The bitter-sweet clash of Campari and Cinzano Rosso is the basis of several classic cocktails. The Americano, for instance is one part each Campari, Cinzano Rosso, and soda water. If you substitute the soda for gin, you have my favourite aperitivo, the Negroni.
Negroni. The apocryphal origin story of the Negroni has Count Camillo Negroni seated at the bar in Caffè Casoni in Florence in 1919. He asks the barkeep to stiffen his Americano by subbing soda with gin.
I feel like a real hack just re-typing stuff that I’ve read elsewhere on the internet, but there is a fantastic quip about the Negroni by Orson Welles: “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.”
Returning to original content: The most memorable cocktail I’ve ever had was a Negroni from Mr. Brown’s in Trastevere, Rome. Unfortunately it’s memorable for the lurid conditions in which it was procured, not any nuance of flavour or composition. Lisa and I were walking back to our apartment after a late dinner, and we finally encountered the raucous, lively Trastevere we had heard about. Drinkers were overflowing from the bars and pouring onto the streets and campi. The street was particularly congested in front of a placed called Mr. Brown’s, advertizing 5 Euro “to go” cocktails. We pushed our way in and stood by the bar to get the lay of the land. 5 Euros didn’t seem especially cheap, until we watched the bartender mix a drink. Bottles of liquor were inverted and held over plastic cups for 3-5 seconds. The drinks were enormous and contained several ounces of liquor. And it seemed you weren’t limited to hi-balls: you could order what ever you want. Tequila Sunrise? Sure. Spritz? The barkeep opened a new bottle Prosecco, projecting the cork through the air and striking a large bell hung over the bar. Mojito? He muddled fresh mint. I ordered a Negroni. My 5 Euros got me about 4 fluid ounces each of gin, Campari, and Vermouth. Actually the drink was so large and purchased so late in the evening that I couldn’t finish it. I put it in the little fridge in our apartment, and the next day I poured it into a glass of Prosecco, thus inventing the Negroni Spritz.
Tangent: If you replace the gin in a Negroni with bourbon, you have a Boulevardier.
Aperol Spritz. While Campari and Cinzano Rosso are a delicious, versatile power couple, I think that the Aperol Spritz is actually the most common aperitivo in Italy. I have no official statistics on this, but a short walk through any northern Italian city in the early evening will confirm my hypothesis.
Aperol is from Padua, in Veneto, and is flavoured with bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb, and other stuff. It is 11% ABV, sweet, orange in colour, and faintly bitter, much less so than Campari. It smells almost exactly like orange Triaminic. If you are unfamiliar with the sweet nectar that is orange Triaminic, think orange Kool-Aid-flavoured cough syrup.
The Aperol Spritz originated in the province of Veneto, supposedly during the Hapsburg occupation of the region. (“Spritz” is the German word for fizz). It is a mixture of Prosecco, Aperol, and soda water poured over ice and garnished with an orange. According to the Aperol website the classic ratio for the Spritz is 3-2-1 Prosecco, Aperol, and soda.
Food at Aperitivo
When ordering a drink for aperitivo you can expect at the very least a small bowl of olives and potato chips. You might also receive finger sandwiches, little pizzas, or cured meat and cheese.
Occasionally the food is set out on a buffet. Maybe some crostini with a variety of spreads, or a large bowl of pasta.
Some advice for students looking to use aperitivo as a meal-replacement: look for starch. Pasta, toast, whole-grain salads, these starches have sustained most of humanity for most of history, and they will sustain you.
Aperitivo plays out a bit differently in Venice. You can get the usual cocktails, but it is more common to drink an ombre, a small glass of wine. And instead of receiving complimentary food you can purchase small one- or two-bite cicheti (chi-KEH-tee). Cicheti can be simple and elemental (roast bell peppers, cheese, olives, et c) or full-on composed hors d’oeuvres (octopus carpaccio and olive spread on a crostino). Escaping the hideous tourist maze to enjoy a plastic cup of Valpolicella and a bite of food is one of the best ways to enjoy Venice.
1. Well before Lil’ Wayne and other southern rappers made it cool, I had my first experience abusing cough syrup. I was three years old, and the story has become a Suddaby family legend. When I was a toddler my mom kept a few bottles of Triaminic on hand. Red Triaminic was for a cough. Orange for a runny nose. The red one was disgusting so I was always careful to stifle my coughs. The orange one was absolutely the best thing I had ever tasted. Like ever. It was candy that you could drink. It tasted kind of like McDonald’s orange drink concentrate. So one day I climbed onto the counter and reached into the medicine cabinet, opened the bottle, and put it to my mouth. The exact amount I drank varies depending on who tells the tale. Mother caught me mid-act, tore the bottle from my tiny hand, and immediately called poison control. They said that I would get drowsy, then fall asleep. Mother only needed to jostle me every so often make sure that I was still able to wake up. If I didn’t wake up she should call 911. (That’s actually the advice they gave.) As I remember we went to the park that afternoon and I fell asleep on the tire swing. I think everything worked out all right, though.