April 11, 2008

Aperitivo hour

It is nearing that time of year when the days get longer and the weather warmer, and the time between work and dinner seems to stretch out, offering up an array of fun things to do that we don't do in winter. Like hanging out on the porch sipping a cocktail with our neighbors, or just the two of us in the backyard, for our little "aperitivo."

I picked up the habit in Italy about the same time I picked up my coffee addiction. No other culture understands the importance of the 'before dinner hour' quite like the Italians do (except for maybe the French, but since I think Italians do everything better, I am going to be partial here). And for Italians, the 'aperitivo' it is a ritual they will not be denied --as ingrained in their social consciousness as the morning 'cappuccino al bar.' Both rituals involve something inherently social, and something to look forward to each day as if that day was the last one you could enjoy it. But then you get to wake up the next day and have your coffee standing at your favorite bar with your favorite barista, and on the way home from work, stop by another favorite bar for your aperitivo before going home to dinner.

Of course, now that I think of it, it's kind of a male ritual, since someone has to be home preparing dinner between 7-8pm, as all Italians eat their dinner at the same time each day, and we all know who that 'someone' is. But of course that is changing too, as fewer people are living traditional lifestyles with strictly codified gender roles anymore. Most aren't even marrying at all, and Italy has the lowest birthrate in all of Europe. So more and more women are taking up the aperitivo habit and drinking one or two right alongside their male counterparts.

Sometimes the drink of choice is a glass of wine, or a beer, and every city has their own unique 'aperitivo' too, but often they drink these fun little brightly colored, distinctively Italian "bitters" like my personal favorite, Campari. It is bright red and has a spicy flavor with an underlying trace of bitter orange.

As I read in a fantastic little book called simply 'aperitif', by Georgeanne Brennan:

"It is created by macerating herbs in water and alcohol to create an infusion that is then blended with more alcohol and sugar to create the final drink."

Created in Milan in the 1860s by a bartender named Gaspare Campari, it is now sold worldwide and figures in many, many drinks such as the Negroni or the Americano (with gin, vermouth and bitters) but mostly it's served over ice, with a splash of soda and a silce of orange. This is how I like it.

Together with a pre-dinner drink whose purpose is to stimulate the appetite, Italians also would never drink alcohol without nibbling on somthing, so a bar will have little "stuzzichini" set out: little plates of nuts or fried things, olives, cheese or salumi. Just a little something to whet the appetite even more and make the drink go down smoothly.

Everyone who has lived with me or near me has gotten into the 'aperitivo' hour. It's addictive. Even my man, who doesn't even like to drink that much, is hooked on Campari in the summer. In fact, "aperitivo' is one of the only Italian words he knows. And really, it's about the most important one to know anyway. That, and "motorino," my other little fixation.

Campari and soda

3 or 4 ice cubes
2 ounces Campari
2 ounces of soda water, chilled
thin slices of orange or orange peel

Put the ice cubes in a chilled glass and pour the Campari over them. Pour in the soda water and stir. Add the orange garnish if desired. Serve--and enjoy-- at once!


  1. that used to be my drink of choice for years - back in the day... but it's been awhile.

    i love campari. i need to pick up a bottle for the coming months.

    thanks for the reminder!

  2. I'm with Claudia - a wonderful reminder! After being in Italy, I've decided that in our culture we don't eat and drink enough -- and by enough, I mean at enough times in the day. We also don't socialize enough. Here's to the aperitivo!

  3. campari is one of our cocktail hour staples. it's too bad it is so underappreciated and underutilized.