Aperitivo: 5 things to know about Italy's greatest drinking tradition

Italians are renowned for a relaxed, enjoy-life-to-the-fullest lifestyle, so it’s no surprise that one of their most famous customs brings together two of life’s greatest joys: fine dining and quality drinks! The aperitivo is sacrosanct almost anywhere you go in this beautiful country - the home of May's Gin of the Month. From the fashion capital of Milan to the cobblestone streets of Rome, here’s all you need to know about this pre-dinner tradition.

1. It started with vermouth

Turin Italy city centre with statue in the 1700s painting

It’s not entirely clear how the aperitivo started, but most signs point to Turin in the late 1700s. It was here that Antonio Benedetto Carpano, widely credited with making the first vermouth, popularised the idea that a drink before dinner was the key to whetting one’s appetite – hence the word aperitivo, derived from the Italian word for ‘to open’. But it wasn’t just any old drink that would do the trick, and Carpano brilliantly marketed his fortified white wine and herb mixture as the tipple of choice for pre-dinner drinking. It’s a staple in aperitivo cocktails even to this day!

2. It’s enjoyed all across Italy

Milan Square coffe culture al fresco setting in Italy

The aperitivo started in north western Italy. When this pre-dinner treat hit Milan during the booze-fuelled era of the 1920s, the trend immediately caught on all across the region. That’s not to say you can’t find a great aperitivo further down south! In cities like Rome and Florence, there’s no shortage of beautiful, historic spots hosting this cocktail hour. Even in Naples, southern Italy’s biggest city, the concept of aperitivo has been wholeheartedly embraced, with a thriving cocktail scene and numerous bars across the city where you can partake.

3. It’s a full-blown foodie affair

Canapes and aperitivo table salmon cream cheese

A drink to ‘open’ your appetite is one thing, but what really sets a proper aperitivo apart is the variety of nibbles at hand. You won’t find yourself snacking on crisps or olives at the aaperitivo table; instead expect a variety of delicious canapés. Dishes available at the bar – or even in the form of a bountiful buffet – are chosen specifically to complement the bitterness of traditional aperitivo cocktails. Cheeses, quiches, cured meats and even pastas are often offered. With so many delicious dishes on hand, it may be tempting to load up on the carbs and skip dinner altogether – but don’t get distracted! This time is all about nibbling, socialising and relaxing before you sit down to a proper meal.

4. It’s not exactly the same as ‘Happy Hour’

Aperitivo drinks on rooftop over looking skyline

Post-work drinks, snacks… it’s tempting to want to call aperitivo the ‘Italian Happy Hour’, but the truth is that this concept is worlds apart from the booze-fuelled pub socialising we partake in here in the UK. Yes, aperitivi tend to take place after working hours (from 6 to 9pm is prime aperitivo time) and involve snacks and nibbles, but the similarities end there. While ‘Happy Hour’ is all about snagging discounts and deals on cheap drinks and pub food, aperitivo can cost as much as 18 Euros for a single drink and access to the snacks!

Don’t go to aperitivo to get intoxicated (doing so is highly frowned upon by the Italians); do go to prepare the palate for the delicious dinner to come and catch up with friends over a drink or two. 

5. Drinks vary by region

Negroni drink in backlit bar

Italy is known around the world for its incredible wines, but its aperitivo scene shows that Italian cocktails are also up to snuff! While you can opt for your drink of choice, certain drinks have become traditional to enjoy. Campari, from Novara, is the drink of choice for many, and it serves as the base for several classic aperitivo cocktails. But you’ll also find Aperol in many a tipple, including the famous Venetian ‘Aperol Spritz’. Bitter booze is essential for the ‘opening’ process of an aperitivo drink. Perhaps the most famous cocktail of all is the classic Negroni; dubbed the ‘King of the Aperitivo’, this ridiculously easy-to-make cocktail packs more flavour into one sip than any other tipple. Equal parts gin, Campari and red vermouth, it’s a fail-proof cocktail to order, no matter where you choose to sip.