Italians really know how to eat well. They appreciate food a lot, and on a good day the whole dining experience may include some five to six courses starting with an aperitivo. Bring a little bit of Italy to your friends this summer and host an aperitivo at home.
What is aperitivo?
Aperitivo is an early-evening drink accompanied by snacks. Italians like to make sure there is food available when alcohol is consumed. Consider it an Italian happy hour.
Aperitivo takes place early evening, usually between 7 and 9pm, but there are some exceptions. Many Italians enjoy an aperitivo after work or before dinner as the idea is to increase the appetite before the main meal, to still feel hungry for dinner. It can consist of appetisers such as olives, crisps, crostini, cheese and cured meats, or it may be more filling, with pasta dishes, salads, lasagne and more. Some venues simply give you a small bowl or two of snacks to go with the drink, but others serve a buffet from which you help yourself. The plates are kept small and the point is not to stack up the food, but to revisit the buffet more often.
If the buffet is more extensive, it can be called apericena (cena means dinner), in which case the food is often available throughout the night. This type of buffet can be slightly more expensive. An apericena spread is often more filling and includes warm dishes, therefore you could skip dinner altogether. This version of an aperitivo is new and more popular amongst the younger crowd.
How to host an aperitivo at home
The right set-up
Aperitivo is a great way to socialise with friends and family. It is a very relaxed event, therefore setting up should be very easy. There is no need for many decorations; the key is to make sure the atmosphere is very chilled. Choose a type of lounge music, anything easy listening that is cheerful but not too up-beat. You don’t need to have Italian music to host an aperitivo…
Add colour with napkins, flowers and small plates. Paper plates are commonly used in Italy, but if you’re not expecting a huge group, normal side plates will do just fine. The plates should be small so that everyone will take their time eating by having smaller platefuls rather than taking more than they can handle. You’ll need only forks and serving spoons; as an aperitivo buffet consists of mainly finger food and salads/pastas, you won’t be needing knives. You should be able to eat standing up.
Set up some candles or mood lighting for outdoors. Ideally, you would host an aperitivo in the garden or on the terrace. Use cushions and blankets to create a relaxed vibe for outdoors.
Dress to impress! Italians dress up well even when they are going for a casual drink.
What to drink?
The word aperitivo can also be used to describe pre-dinner drinks. The traditional drinks include Prosecco, vermouth, Negroni, Americano, Aperol Spritz and a range of other red or orange bitters, which are all served with soda, Prosecco or an orange juice. It is said that aperitivo bitters should be the colour of sunset. Today, aperitivo drinks can be anything from a glass of wine to Mojito to G&T.
You can simply offer a range of wines and Prosecco and have a bottle or two of Campari and Aperol ready. Alternatively, make pre-batched cocktails (Pimm’s Cup, anyone?) in jugs so you’ll only need to add ice once serving.
To make any kind of spritz, simply use three parts Prosecco, two parts Italian bitter liqueur of your choice and one part soda. Garnish with an orange slice (and a green olive if you dare – olive is a popular garnish for Aperol Spritz in the Veneto region).
Aperitivo food should include simple finger food and a few salads (pasta salad, quinoa, caprese etc.). Normally, the food is served cold, but during apericena many venues offer hot dishes, anything from lasagne to roasted potatoes. It is also common to offer a range of dips with plain crostini, so that everyone can choose their favourite topping.
Want to host an aperitivo, but haven’t got enough time to cook? Ask each guest to bring a dish for the buffet.
Buffet ideas (do not overcomplicate by choosing too many options):
Cold cuts (salami, mortadella, prosciutto)
Cheese (Parmegiano, Pecorino) + honey
Finger sandwiches/baguettes (use a variety of toppings and slice into bite-sized portions)
Crostini (tomato/garlic/olive oil topping; leave some plain to be used with dips)
Dips (truffle cream, avocado, pea/feta/mint, tomato…)
Melon and feta salad
Parmigiana (a cheesy aubergine dish)
Warm couscous salad
Tips to keep you organised:
- Have plenty of ice
- Clean glassware, anything from wine glasses to tumblers
- Cut fruit for garnishing (mainly orange for your usual aperitivo drinks)
- Chill wine/Prosecco
- There’s no need to go overboard with the food. If you are short of time, just keep it simple and light
- Pick recipes you can make in advance
- Pre-batch drinks when possible
- Have your playlist ready
- Don’t forget water
Have you tried an aperitivo? Do you have a favourite aperitivo drink?
OMG ice is so important. On our last vacation with my friends we struggled to find icecubes in the supermarket and we had to make our own icecubes with we had in the house (and wait for them of course). So we drank beer on the first night and did the aperitivo the next day 😀
Anyway… Great guide !
Haha the struggle is real when it comes to ice! I wish I could have a proper ice machine or order clear ice.
very impressive guide – like your presentation of the different Bitters and Aperitivos.
Thank you! Do you have a favourite aperitivo drink?
Cynar, Averna or Gin Tonic with BBQ
I like using Cynar in cocktails.
Great thing to enjoy when in Italy
Definitely, especially in the summer!
I really appreciate this Italian tradition. We had aperitivo a lot on my recent Siena trip and we want to recreate it at home, so I’ll be stealing all the ideas from this post! One question though – what’s apericena? Is this the same thing as aperitivo?
Yes please, go ahead! Apericena is more extensive buffet with hot dishes. Cena means dinner, therefore this type of buffet is more filling. More common with young Italians who don’t want to spend too much money for dinners.