An authentic Italian meal is generally experienced from beginning to end in coordination with the senses, including ways to stimulate and alleviate the stomach to harmonize with the cadence of the meal. Aperitivo, enjoyed today throughout Italy as a pre-dinner cocktail hour similar to American “happy hour,” plays an integral part in this Italian gastronomic process.
A look into the etymology of the word provides the first clue: the word aperitivo (or aperitif in French) originates from the Latin word, apertitiuvum, and literally means to stimulate the appetite. While it may seem counter-intuitive, Italians believe a small snack paired with a mildly alcoholic, bitter cocktail before dinner prepares the stomach for ingestion. The traditional saying is, L’appetito viene mangiando, or “Appetite comes when you eat.” And the bitter, herbal base of classic aperitivo cocktails accompanying these small bites, such as a Negroni (Campari, Martini Rosso vermouth and gin) or a Spritz (Aperol or Campari and prosecco), is rooted in the science that bitterness encourages hunger.
While the true historical origins of aperitivo are not completely clear, Europeans were consuming alcohol flavored with bitter herbs, purely for medicinal purposes, as early as the 16th century. In 1786, Antonio Benedetto Carpano invented vermouth, a wine fortified and flavored with wormwood (also the active ingredient in absinthe). Subsequent recipes and adaptations by companies such as Martini and Cinzano, and later Campari and Aperol, made the bitter concoctions of medieval times tastier, thus encouraging libations in the mid-to-late 1800s. It wasn’t until the 1920s, however, that bitter aperitivo drinks paired up with food, a trend made famous in Milan. Today, in city centers of Milan, Rome, and Turin, modern aperitivo spreads can be lavish and served buffet-style.
Regardless of the place, aperitivo time has become commonplace throughout all of Italy, and drinks are served with complimentary snacks in a casual and social atmosphere. Bars and cafés brim with friends, neighbors, and colleagues, all eating, drinking, and gearing up for the ultimate dinner destination, or satiating themselves with the spread of free food for the price of a drink, as many budget-conscious are wont to do.
Aperitivo may awaken the appetite, but our other senses can be also be stirred by this tradition: the sights of people-watching at a crowded café, sounds of voices and clinking glasses to toast with friends, the touch of a double-kiss greeting, and the smell of the feast that awaits once aperitivo dwindles and people continue to gather around the table.