Throughout Italy, early evenings are as lively a time as any. Clinking glasses, chatter and small plates of delicious food signal aperitivo hour. Aperitivo typically occurs prior to dinner as a time to catch up with friends or as a much-needed shopping break. Either way, the most important component of Italy’s version of happy hour is quality time spent together. Bars and patios are crowded with Italians of all ages, as aperitivo is the place to be and be seen. The Italian staple, however, has experienced a profound shift this year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the changes and obstacles, Italians have found creative and innovative ways of toasting and connecting with one another.
Aperitivo in Italy and worldwide
The practice of what we know today as aperitivo has a few different supposed roots of origin. The ritual apparently dates back to the Romans who indulged in a gustatio before dinner, tasting luscious wines and foods before banquets. Appropriately, the founders of some of Italy’s most popular liquors were also instrumental in the creation of the aperitivo hour. Allegedly, the creator of vermouth, Antonio Benedetto Carpano, started the aperitivo tradition in 18th century Turin. A proponent of the pre-dinner tipple, King Vittorio Emanuele would later go on to enjoy Carpano’s beverage before his own meals, proving that this habit was even fit for a king. Original distiller of Campari liquor, Gaspare Campari, and creator of the Negroni cocktail, Count Camillo Negroni, were also supposed enthusiasts of the happy hour drink. To this day, vermouth, Campari and Negroni are listed on every aperitivo menu in Italy.
Not to be confused with the French apéritif, Italian aperitivo is typically a dry, bitter drink with a variety of salty snacks. These snacks range from chips or peanuts on the bar to small panini and bowls of pasta. They are provided in ‘serve yourself’ buffet style, and often drinks are offered at a reduced price. The intent is to whet your appetite in preparation for dinner while spending some quality time with friends. The different regions put their own spin and flair on aperitivo. For example, in the northern regions prosecco and drinks with Campari are particularly popular, oftentimes served with cold cuts and bruschetta or fries. Central regions such as Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna favor the Negroni cocktail, and in southern Italy, local products are featured in the form of taralli, pecorino cheese and salami.
The aperitivo concept is enjoyed the world over. In Korea, happy hours usually take place in a karaoke bar and are much rowdier than their Italian counterparts’s gatherings. Turkish functions occur after work, the Irish make sure to offer rounds to their friends, and in Hungary it is customary to not to clink glasses together during a toast, as this is highly offensive. Like in Italy, the aperitivo is a quintessential part of daily life, a moment for pausa and good company.
Toasting from home
The Covid-19 pandemic this year has clearly been devastating to every aspect of life, including the aperitivo culture in Italy. The Italian health authorities placed restrictions on bars and restaurants in order to mitigate risk. Some towns have instituted ‘anti-aperitivo’ ordinances to discourage gatherings. Aperitivo, unfortunately, is a prime opportunity for exposure to and contraction of disease with community plates and buffet-style dining, not to mention the large congregations of people.
However, a pandemic could not stop Italians from enjoying a cocktail and snacks in true aperitivo-fashion — even from home. Some invited close friends or family over to partake in a happy hour, others chose to virtually ape with loved ones. Balcony and patio drinks also became popular alternatives to hitting the bar before dinner, and restaurants created aperitivo a domicilio (aperitivo at home) kits. In keeping with the theme of this year, one cocktail in particular has been especially trendy: the Quarantini. It seems that there are different recipes for the drink involving vodka, gin, lemon or bourbon, but the key ingredient is self isolation.
As the year winds down and folks prepare for the holidays, it is difficult to abstain from a gift shopping break replete with cocktails and snacks. The pre-Christmas dinner aperitivo with friends will be sorely missed this year, as will any New Years Eve happy hours. The Negroni will have to be enjoyed from home at a safe distance as we toast to 2021 and all the ape’s it is sure to bring — cin cin!
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