From north to south, Milan to Naples, there’s at least one tradition that unites Italians – the aperitivo. At around 6pm you’ll find people sipping spritzes and nibbling on crisps and nuts all across the country. But what are the origins of the aperitivo, and which are the best bars to experience one of the most popular Italian traditions?
The origins of the Italian aperitivo
Aperitivo comes from the Latin apertivus, meaning something that opens. The concept of the aperitivo has been attributed to the Greek doctor Hippocrates, who recommended a bitter drink to “open” the stomach before eating as a cure for lack of appetite. This was in the 5th century b.C., however, and it wasn’t until much later that the tradition of the Italian aperitivo began.
In 1786, the owner of a liquor store in Turin invented vermouth. Its popularity spread across Italy, leading to the invention of cocktails like Negroni, and other bitter drinks such as Campari. By the 19th century the Italian aperitivo had become a firmly established tradition.
After finishing work, Italians across the country head to a bar to unwind with a cocktail and some snacks. Aperitivo is a pre-dinner ritual; the idea is to relax and enjoy a drink with friends, not to fill up or get drunk. However, one way that the aperitivo has evolved in modern times is the invention of the “apericena” and buffets, which are particularly common in Milan. For €8-12 you’ll get a drink and a more extensive range of food, often including pizza, pasta and salad.
Aperitivo in Italy: what to eat and drink
The alcoholic drink is the focus of the aperitivo. The most traditional drinks are bitter cocktails like Aperol Spritz, Campari Spritz and Negroni (the strongest of the three), but wine and beer are also popular. If you’re looking for a non-alcoholic alternative, try Crodino, a bitter, orange-coloured drink made with herbal extracts and sugar.
Unless you’re indulging in an “apericena” or buffet, the food is an extra – a snack on the side. Crisps, salted nuts and olives are the most common offerings, along with taralli (savoury breadstick snacks from Puglia). Some bars also serve cold cuts and cheese, or even pinzimonio (sliced raw vegetables to dip in olive oil with salt and pepper).
If you order a drink at a bar at aperitivo time (usually 6pm-9pm), you’ll usually be given some basic snacks, included in the price of the drink. The more expensive the drink, and the fancier the bar, the more sophisticated the aperitivo snack. If you’re particularly hungry, or there’s a snack you’re craving, just ask the waiter. You can always order the food separately.
Where to have aperitivo in Rome
Rome is the perfect place to experience classic Italian traditions like aperitivo. Virtually any bar in the city will offer an aperitivo of sorts. For a more special experience, look for smarter bars in the city centre. Bars located on scenic streets, piazzas or rooftops will be more expensive, but they’re also more likely to offer a memorable experience. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with a spritz and a bowl of crisps at an ordinary bar on a residential street if you want to live like the locals.
The historic centre, Monti, Trastevere and Pigneto are the best neighbourhoods to find a bar for aperitivo. We recommend just walking around and finding a table at a bar that appeals to you, but here are some of our personal favourites:
- Salotto 42 (centro storico). A trendy bar located right in front of the Temple of Hadrian in the historic centre. Excellent cocktails with snacks for €10-12.
- Etabli (centro storico). A classy, modern bar in a 15th century building, just around the corner from Piazza Navona. Great choice of wine and cocktails, accompanied by a selection of cured meat and cheese.
- Fafiuche (Monti). Located in a charming backstreet in Monti, this bar specialises in wine from the Piemonte region. There are more than 600 wine labels on offer – for €8 you can sample one, along with some delicious food from the buffet.
- L’Oasi della Birra (Testaccio). As the name suggests, this is the place to come for beer. There’s an impressive “menu” of international beer that runs to several pages. At aperitivo time you can get a drink and unlimited food from the buffet, including pasta, meat and vegetable dishes for €10-12.
- Necci (Pigneto). A neighbourhood institution, Necci was once frequented by Pasolini. This bar takes aperitivo seriously – there’s a wide range of drinks and types of aperitivo on offer, from a simple cocktail to a more extensive “apericena” buffet. Whatever you order, make sure you get a table in the garden.
Read more: Everything You Need to Know about Aperitivo (Eater)