If you ever find yourself in Russia, and someone offers you a glass of Vodka, you don’t turn it down. The same is true in Italy, when being served food, whether you’re hungry or not.
San Pedro Market, Cuzco, Peru. Photo courtesy of Andean Discovery.
Aperitivo: Drinks Paired with Food
The freshly baked focaccia sits in front of me. Next to it, taking center stage, pieces of toasted bread sit underneath well-oiled, succulent tomatoes. Across the way, a tiny, purple pyramid of olives fills a white bowl, and rests in a golden sea.
Just a moment ago I ordered a glass of Prosecco. Upon its arrival came this savory selection of appetizers, posing a real problem for me. It’s six o’clock in the evening and a four-course dinner awaits me later tonight. I have no intentions of spoiling my appetite. On the other hand, turning down food in Italy could give the wrong impression that something is wrong with the meal, injuring the pride of those serving it.
Placing my wine back on the table, I admire the plates again. They are silently staring back at me, seducing my taste buds.
Freshly baked focaccia with garlic and rosemary. Photo courtesy of Alexander Von Halem.
Fragrant, baked garlic cloves sit tucked in tiny divots atop the focaccia. Their warm caramelized juices seep out. Enticing aromas float through the air. Hints of rosemary sneak up and touch my nose, then dance away. Come a little closer, they beckon me.
I want to send the food back. I didn’t order it. But then again I would love just a bite.
I hear a faint whisper. What are you afraid of? Have a taste. And again, the seduction continues.
Mouth watering Bruschetta. Photo courtesy of Michael Spencer
Next to the focaccia, the bruschetta baits me with its brilliant red and yellow looks. It catches my eye and I’m about to give in, almost picking up a piece, but then I stop myself. Two can play at this game. Leaning down I simply smell the bouquet of earthy, fresh tomatoes and garlic. My resolution, however, is diminishing.
Olives marinating in oil. Photo courtesy of Stuart Spivack.
As if I could handle any more, flirting on the other side of the table, the tiny bowl of olives comes into view. The purple skins dressed in golden olive oil await me. Their salty, rich flavors radiate toward me, reaching for my lips.
I don’t think I can resist any longer.
My willpower has been defeated and I feel myself relinquishing to the food. Ready to satisfy my craving, I reach for the tiny focaccia square.
And the wait is over. My palate breathes a sigh of fulfillment.
In almost perfect timing, so I do not overindulge my appetite, my Italian friend arrives. She partakes in the finger food, without a second thought of it ruining her evening dinner.
Telling her about the unexpected arrival of food with my drink, she laughs and explains the concept of Aperitivo.
Aperitivo: More Than A Happy Hour
Aperitivo is derived from the Latin word, aperire, meaning opening. The pre-dinner drink and spread of food is meant to open the palate, awaken the taste buds, and stir up the stomach juices.
Occurring after work between the hours of 6pm and 8pm, aperitivo is not to be confused with the American happy hour. Rather than overindulging in drinks with friends, Italians indulge their senses in preparation for a dinner ahead.
Campari is a typical drink enjoyed during aperitivo. Photo courtesy of Massimiliano.
Typically, drinks that will kick-start the digestive system are low in alcohol content and tend to be bitter rather than sweet. Good choices are the “Spritz” (Prosecco, Aperol or Campari, and soda water), the “Americano” (Vermouth, Campari and soda water) or the “Negroni” (Gin, Vermouth, and Campari). My personal favorite is a light and refreshing glass of Prosecco wine, especially enjoyed on a midsummer’s night at an outdoor bar.
Aperitivo time – Prosecco and a few snacks to open the palate. Photo courtesy of Fabiana.
Food offerings vary depending on which bar you find yourself, but are always included in the price of your drink. A very busy time of day, these establishments seek to produce the best aperitivo in town. While some places keep it simple, only offering bowls of olives, nuts and chips; other places offer dishes that could contend with those of a four-course dinner. Freshly baked focaccia and bruschetta, platters of meats and cheeses, and marinated vegetables are quite common, and rival the first course of dinner, the antipasti. Still, competing with dinner itself, other places offer an elaborate buffet, testing one’s willpower not to overindulge.
Aperitivo with variety. Photo courtesy of Anie Mendreck.
One thing is for sure: Italians are passionate about their food. The aperitivo is a testament that eating in Italy is taken seriously. Nothing is overlooked or ignored. Dinner consists of more than preparing the meal and eating it. While the appetite may seem like something that hardly needs addressing, it is considered a very important detail in Italian culture. Breathing energy into it by way of aperitivo ensures a very enjoyable dinner ahead.
Aperitivo: Experience it for Yourself
Aperitivo in Italy. Photo courtesy of Fabiana.
An alluring scene awaits you in Italy. Next time you find yourself in the land of food and wine, find a local bar and experience an aperitivo for yourself. Better yet, grab a bottle of Prosecco, a few small snacks and surround yourself with good company for a do-it-yourself aperitivo, wherever you are.
Where do you like to enjoy Aperitivo in Italy? What’s your favorite drink or snack to stimulate your palate?
Top Photo credit: Aperitivo in Milano. Photo courtesy of Luca Volpi.