Aperitivo is like happy hour, if every happy hour were beautifully lit, accompanied by incredible food and drink, and utterly life-affirming.
The Italian tradition occurs every day at sunset, when restaurants and bars set out small snacks, called cicchetti, to accompany palate-opening drinks. The word itself derives from the Italian verb aprire, to open. In Italian culture aperitivo is an opportunity to open your appetite, to ready your stomach for the amazing food on the horizon.
It’s believed to have initiated in Piedmont in the 18th century, when King Vittorio Emanuele II embraced a spiced white wine called vermouth as his pre-dinner drink of choice. Then, in 19th-century Tuscany, Count Camillo Negroni accidentally invented a vermouth-based concoction appropriately called the Negroni. It soon became a staple for aperitivo hour in that region.
Today, on the Venetian lagoon in Venice, the city of masks, aperitivo hour takes on a whole new meaning. One can easily get lost in the city’s labyrinthine ancient streets — and many do, often with intention.
But what you can always find is a plethora of small bars tucked into buildings and dotting sidewalks. Here, Venetians gather in the twilight hours, sipping on an ombra (meaning shade, or a small pour of wine) or two of Prosecco, and nibbling on cicchetti.
During this magic hour, Prosecco takes center stage. Clean and crisp, with apple, pear and a hint of floral notes, this bubbly is made from the Glera grape, grown just north of Venice. It’s the perfect foil for some of the region’s dishes, such as fried gorgonzola, halved boiled eggs, or vegetable dishes drizzled with olive oil, as well as polenta cakes and various seafood dishes you can eat with a toothpick.
The Veneto is also home to the Spritzer, a mix of Prosecco and water. It is said that Austrian soldiers in northwestern Italy during the Hapsburg occupation thought the local wines were too strong, so they asked for a “Spritzen” of water to calm it down.
Thus, the Spritz was born. The drink eventually evolved with the popularity of amaro and availability of carbonated water. Today it is akin to an adult soft drink, made with Aperol or Campari added for extra flavor, color, and alcoholic punch.
As fun and delicious as a Spritzer can be, though, it is nothing without Prosecco. A pour of pure, 100-percent golden-straw-colored Prosecco is the best way to awaken one’s appetite. This is in part because of its bracing bubbles; but it’s also because Prosecco is not just a sparkling wine. Prosecco is also about gathering. It is our companion in the moments before the meal when we all settle in and get to know each other.
In the United States, more and more Italian-inspired bars and restaurants are debuting different versions of their own aperitivo hours. Dante, a cocktail destination in New York City’s Greenwich Village, offers plates of salumi and octopus crudo. In San Francisco, Laconda creates an inspired aperitivo hour, replete with salty kettle chips and deviled eggs.
Those looking to create their own versions at home can do so easily. Grab a few bottles of Prosecco, pick up some snacks (store-bought olives and crackers should do the trick), and invite your friends and neighbors to arrive early for dinner. Presto! You can share some bubbles and stories, and open your palates for the evening ahead.
I still remember my first aperitivo experience. In 2010, I was lucky enough to be traveling around Piedmont with a group of wine nerds. One night we headed to dinner in the town of Barolo. As the sun began to set our driver stopped just outside of town to visit a friend who owned a small wine shop.
Our host offered us glasses of Prosecco, and directed us to a makeshift table of plywood atop a wine barrel that was covered in small little bites of local food. I was floored. This wasn’t the typical happy hour we see in the U.S. This was much more. It was an intimate gathering of strangers who quickly became fast friends by communing over good wine and food, and readying ourselves for the meal ahead (said meal lasted four hours). I had just opened a wine bar in New York and couldn’t wait to bring this style of warm hospitality to my business. I was officially obsessed with aperitivo hour.
That’s the thing about aperitivo. It’s so much more than snacking before dinner. Sharing a bottle of Prosecco with friends is also about inspiration. It opens you up to your next meal, your next few hours, and your next big step in life.
Say, pass the Prosecco, would you?