The Italian word aperitivo doesn’t have a literal English translation. Derived from the Latin aperire (meaning “to open”), aperitivo describes a pre-dinner sipping and snacking ritual intended to stimulate appetite and encourage digestion, a precious moment to slow down and enjoy face time sans smartphones. As the day comes to a close, cafés across Italy fill until they overflow into adjacent piazzas with people partaking in the sacred custom of fare un’aperitivo. It’s an integral part of the Italian experience and Americans are beginning to catch on.
Leisure as an essential part of life is engrained in the Italian consciousness from a young age, a mentality their approach to alcohol reflects. “In Italy, the drinking culture is very different in that there’s no sense of urgency to get drunk,” says chef Nina Clemente of The Plaza at The Standard, High Line. “I grew up having a little bit of wine in my water.” Americans may find this unapologetic embrace of la dolce vita difficult to comprehend, but it’s for that reason exactly that it’s worth giving it a try. “In Amalfi, my mother lived in a beautiful house 200 stone steps up from the sea,” says Clemente. “She would always have people on the terrace to have a cocktail, some olives, grissini and charcuterie. It’s a celebratory grazing session before a later meal.” If this sounds picturesque, it’s because it is.
Light, refreshing and fizzy, aperitivos are also full of flavor, optimized to wet your palate without dulling your taste buds or compromising your tolerance like stronger liquors or sugary cocktails. They’re generally lower in alcohol content and are served with a dash of sparkling or soda water, over ice or with a twist to offset their innate intensity.
In Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, aperitivos are divided into two main classifications: aromatized wines and bitter liqueurs. The former consists of wines that have been fortified or strengthened and naturally flavored, such as vermouth, chinato and Americano. The latter encompasses bitter liqueurs like Cappelletti and Contratto that are easily recognizable by their bright yellow, orange or red shades. The strength and taste of each liqueur corresponds to the depth of its hue, with fiery Aperol leaning sweeter and lighter than scarlet Campari, which tends to be sharper and more alcoholic.
Like most of the greatest contributions to Western civilization, the aperitivo tradition can be traced back to ancient Greece, where it was born out of necessity. “Even though wine was considered a drink of the gods, it was not very godly to be inebriated all of the time,” says Jordan Salcito, Momofuku’s resident wine connoisseur and founder of RAMONA. “They had a lot of strong wine, but it wasn’t necessarily delicious.” Diluting wine with water — or adding honey, spices and herbs — made the drink more palatable and helped to fend off drunkenness. When Rome surpassed Greece as the dominant power in the Mediterranean in the middle of the second century B.C, they adopted the practice as their own.
It wasn’t until the turn of the nineteenth century that aperitivos began to take off internationally, gaining widespread popularity throughout Europe and later, the United States. “In Europe, wine is and always has been a natural part of life,” says Salcito. “Everyone drinks it, not just the elite class.” On the other hand, America’s complex history with alcohol — formed by Prohibition, stifled by countless legalities and stigmatized by religious doctrines — helps to explain the lag. The first domestic iteration of the spritz was the white-wine spritzer of the 1980s, a glorified diet fad reflective of the era’s complete rejection of challenging flavors. Now, the closest American convention is happy hour, which is characterized by dollar draughts, cheap well drinks and wings — a far cry from the romanticized Italian ideal.
Finding the aperitivo that suits your palate is only a matter of opening up to unfamiliar words, colors, flavors and textures. “I had heard of Campari forever, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” says Salcito. “I knew I liked the posters and the ads, but if I drank Campari on its own, it was too bitter.” If your initial forays weren’t entirely pleasant, fear not, there is an aperitivo out there for you. “The beautiful thing about aperitivos is that you can turn each one into a beverage that fits your taste or find something else that you like better,” says Salcito. “There’s an entire world of them should you choose to explore it.”