How an evening pastime became a symbol of Italianità
Could aperitivo be one of the greatest inventions ever made? We think so. A quintessential Italian tradition, a glorious way to wrap up the day, a convivial moment to be enjoyed with friends and new acquaintances: it is remarkable how much this simple pre-dinner ritual packs in.
Not to be confused with happy hour – there are no two-for-one deals involved! — aperitivo is like a magic word and a state of mind in the Bel Paese and, increasingly, abroad, as more and more people embrace it from New York to Hong Kong.
And why shouldn’t they: aperitivo is fun, unpretentious, and the best way to kick off an evening or, why not, a celebration in style.
That includes Christmas, of course: Wow your guests with a little aperitivo ahead of any big meal, and they’ll likely get in the festive mood before you’ve even had time to take the turkey (or lamb/ nut roast/ whatever else you like to cook to mark the holidays) out of the oven.
But enough waxing lyrical about it. Here’s all you need to know about aperitivo, from its history to its most classic presentation and the best snacks to accompany it.
Keen to put your very own together? You’ll find all the essentials in our Aperitivo Box. Salute!
It started with the Romans
As with most Italian traditions, it was during Roman times that the invention of a prototypical form of the aperitivo first took shape. According to gastronomy historians, in fact, before tucking into their banquets well-heeled Romans used to treat themselves to a gustatio, an appetiser washed down with a glass of honey-sweetened wine.
The word aperitivo itself also originated back then. Its etymology derives from the Latin aperitivus, meaning something that opens – a reference to opening up one’s appetite before satiating it completely (which, still today, it’s the most literal function of aperitivo).
A 19th century craze
While our ancestors were behind its original concept and name, it wasn’t until the late 18th century-early 19th century that aperitivo evolved into the social experience we’ve come to adore.
The northern city of Turin is much to thank for that. It was there that distiller Antonio Benedetto Carpano created the vermouth (a widely popular aperitivo drink), in 1786, blending fortified wine with various aromatic herbs and spices.
It was also there that a strong cafe culture meant a growing crop of people began sipping said vermouth in the afternoons and evenings ahead of dinner time, often with something to eat, as it was deemed inappropriate to drink on an empty stomach – particularly when it came to female customers.
Aperitivo took the rest of Italy by storm shortly after that, just as more herbaceous, bitter, vermouth-based spirits began popping up.
In 1860, Gaspare Campari introduced his eponymous vibrant red, bitter beverage, widely served as an aperitivo with soda water or in cocktails like the Negroni and Americano (the exact recipe for Campari remains a secret today).
Alessandro Martini and Luigi Rossi followed suit around the same time, blending herbs, natural caramel, aromatic botanicals, and herbaceous plants to create their first vermouth, Martini & Rossi Rosso (this recipe, too, is another guarded secret).
Then came pharmacist Ausano Ramazzotti, whose bitter sold like hot cakes at the bar he opened just near the La Scala Opera House in Milan.
By the turn of the 20th century, aperitivo had entered Italian culture, and turned into a national pastime.
A thousand ways to Spritz
If vermouth – and its countless variations — is the spirit that most quintessentially defines the origins of aperitivo, the drink that best represents it today is the Spritz.
Its creators? Venetians.
It’s in La Serenissima, in fact, that the bubbly cocktail – generally consisting of prosecco, digestive bitters and soda water – appeared at the aperitivo table around the early 1920s, just as the lagoon city started to recover after World War I.
Eager to rediscover life’s pleasures, patrons turned to Select Spritz first – widely considered it the ‘real’ Venetian Spritz and made with Select, a red aperitif that’s both bitter and sweet – then the ubiquitous Aperol, which has since made a name worldwide.
More Spritzes have followed over the decades: travel across Italy today, and you’ll find versions made with Luxardo and Cynar, Campari, Limoncello and elderflower liqueur, just to name a few.
Spritz, just like aperitivo, has entered the Italian vocabulary as a signifier of a little break that we take every day to mark the shift from work to free time, duty to pleasure. To that end, both drink and tradition are a bit like taking a holiday – and we can’t think of a sweeter experience than that.
So, how do you do aperitivo?
Spritz and vermouth might be aperitivo classics, but, truly, there aren’t set rules on how to do aperitivo right (the flexibility is just another proof that this little practice is ItalianISSIMO!).
Want wine? Go for it. Prefer a rum-based cocktail? Be our guest. What matters with aperitivo is that you use it to unwind, unplug, and spend time with people to connect and just have a good time.
The only recommendation: have some food with it. Aperitivo isn’t aperitivo if it doesn’t come with a bite to eat. So whether it’s peanuts or pizza, olives or cold cuts, pair your tipple with a little nosh. It’s kind of a healthy habit if you think about it, really!
The perfect at-home aperitivo
One more thing to love about aperitivo: it’s super easy to pull together at home – and the ideal icebreaker for any party/ dinner/ gathering you might find yourself hosting during the holidays (and on regular days, too!).
All you need are ice cubes chilling in the freezer, the right number of spirits, and a little BuonISSIMO set up to kick things off.
That’s where the ISSIMO Aperitivo Box comes in. Featuring peschiole, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes – the Holy Grail of aperitivo snacks – plus four BellISSIMO ceramic bowls to serve them in, it balances substance and form, and looks the part whatever the occasion.
Also, it’s a pretty great stocking filler. Just saying…