“Aperitivo,” the rich uncle of the “Happy Hour,” is the beloved Milanese tradition of pre-dinner drinks accompanied by complimentary “stuzzichini,” or appetizers. Derived from the Latin “aperitivus,” or, “to open,” aperitivo is meant to open the appetite and tease the taste buds, previewing the delights of dinner.
The typical spread can be something as modest as olives, cheeses and potato chips to something as overwhelming and awe-inspiring as pasta dishes, pizza slices, bruschetta, meats, sautéed vegetables and fruit salad. Unlike the American happy hour, drinks are the regular price or slightly more — but come with unlimited admission to the food bar. The usual aperitivo starts at 6 or 7 PM and lasts until 9, and as little as one drink—alcoholic or not—can be your ticket to one of the most delicious secrets in Italy.
Do as the Milanese do…
Although it is entirely possible to make an entire free dinner of aperitivo, the real test is to act like the Milanese, who delicately graze through the line, giving the food the respect it deserves.
As an American student studying in Milan, amazed by the delicious food and blindsided by the dismal exchange rate, my fellow expats and I were not so sophisticated. We would dash to the food immediately after the waitress walked away with our drink order, returning with our hands guarding our heaps of food, poised to catch the last piece of focaccia from falling to the ground. The locals, still dressed in their crisp and stylish work attire, would watch us with amusement as they nibbled at the vegetables and cheeses, then sampled the more elaborate dishes.
After all, the Milanese have had time to perfect their technique. With roots in ancient Rome and more direct ancestors in the 1800s, aperitivo is a well-established Italian tradition, particularly in Northern Italy. The modern aperitivo began to take shape in the 1920s in Milan—the city became known as “the capital of aperitivo” as the tradition gained popularity—and consisted of drinks of Campari or similar bitters, accompanied by simple snack foods such as olives or nuts.
Since then, the food selection has exploded in size, and the drinks are no longer limited to traditional “aperitif” liquors—bitters, prosecco, martinis and white wine—though they still remain the most popular choices, with the decisive winner being the Negroni (1 part Gin, 1 part Campari, 1 part Sweet Vermouth). Through it all, the social essence of the aperitivo tradition has remained its unchangeable core.
“Aperitivo offers a moment of relaxation at the end of a day at work, where you can allow yourself the pleasure of conversation paired with the pleasure of good food,” says Grazia Mannozzi, author and professor at the University of Insubria, just outside Milan. “It is especially successful due to the pleasant climate of our country and the Italian passion for socializing,” she says, “as can also be seen in the ‘passeggiare’ tradition, in which people stroll in the piazzas and the main streets of the cities in the evening.” Mannozzi attends aperitivo approximately once a week, but says she knows of many people who attend far more frequently (“especially those without children to make dinner for!” she adds).
So many aperitivo options
The possibilities for aperitivo are endless. Walk into any neighborhood café and you’ll find a dozen tables crammed with friends and family, laughing and talking excitedly, very rarely sitting; standing for the excitement of a story, mingling with friends at other tables, passing along the bar filled with steaming plates and bowls.
Pick: Bar Tender
Piazza Morbegno (intersection of Via Varanini and Via Venini)
Bar Tender is our pick for “neighborhood bar.” Drinks are anywhere from €5.50 for a regular drink to €8 for a large drink. Service is prompt and friendly and the food selection is legendary—many Milanese claim it is the largest they have seen in the city. With various types of focaccia, pizza, and pasta dishes (and with servers that bring the plates around to the table to serve you seconds), you may find it difficult to wait until 9, when they clear the bar to make room for the delicious desserts.
Head to Brera, the artsy, bohemian district, and meander along its cobblestone streets where you’ll find friends, looking effortlessly hip with their colorful scarves, lingering over their white wine in the ivy-climbed patio cafés.
Pick: Radetzky Café
Via Largo La Foppa, 5
Drinks average about €8, and the buffet has all the elements of a standard aperitivo spread, yet nothing more. You pay, however, for the experience—considered one of the trendiest bars in Brera, this is the place to see and be seen. And its location in the primarily pedestrian-only streets of Brera guarantees that the party flows outside on warm nights, accumulating crowds of patrons drinking and smoking around the picturesque bar.
Care to have a drink in Venice? Take a trip to Milan’s Navigli district, where the canals—designed in 1482 by Leonardo da Vinci to import wine, food, and the marble needed to construct Milan’s elaborate Gothic Duomo—still carve through the narrow streets.
Along the still waters, lined with lights, the trendiest bars and restaurants compete for the largest and most exciting stuzzichini selections, as the university students compete with the blaring music. For an even more unique experience, step onto one of the houseboats docked in the canals, which offer aperitivo and often live music. Whether by land or by sea, most of the Navigli hot spots turn their buffets into dance floors later in the evening.
Via Ascanio Sforza, 9
Drinks are about €7, and the experience manages to combine an impressive food selection with a fun and trendy experience. You will probably not notice the burnt orange walls, animal prints and knick-knack decorations because you will be too busy filling up your plate. With standard wares such as focaccia, cold cuts, pasta, French fries, and even New York-style pizza, the word has gotten out; arrive by 7 PM at the latest before the line gets out of hand.
For a more classic aperitivo experience, go no further than the heart of the city, Piazza Duomo. There you’ll find the more expensive bars, as they tend to cater to the large percentage of tourists who never stray from that sightseeing epicenter. But be careful—expensive does not necessarily translate into better or more food.
Inside the Galleria di Vittorio Emanuele lies Café Zucca, arguably the home of the aperitivo. A favorite hangout of Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini after their performances at La Scala, the legendary opera house next door, “Zucca in Galleria” was owned by the Campari family, who lent their name to the traditional aperitif they invented. Consequently, Zucca is often considered the original aperitivo bar, and wears its history proudly. Though you’ll pay extra for the experience, soak up the historical ambiance as you gaze at the Duomo’s magnificent spires and pinnacles. Weaving in and out through the crowd of tourists, you’ll also hear the clicks of heels echoing along the marble floors as the shoppers pass by with their newly acquired Gucci and Prada treasures.
Pick: Caffè Miani Zucca In Galleria
In Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, in Piazza Duomo
Like few places in the city, Zucca has made a determined effort to remain in the style of the golden days of aperitivo. The keyword here is classic: classic, old-fashioned décor; classic, simple food selection (olives, potato chips and nuts); and classic, original aperitivo drinks (Negroni and the classic Milanese martini are most popular).
You can’t go wrong
With almost every bar and café in the city offering some version of aperitivo, the choices may seem overwhelming. But with obvious variations in ambiance, selection size, and prices, it is easy to select an unforgettable aperitivo experience. Just follow the pace of the Milanese in their leisurely tribute to food and friends; that is, if that new plate of risotto will let you.
About the author:
Jenna Weiner is a senior English major at Georgetown University. She is the former Editor-in-Chief and current News Editor of The Georgetown Independent, where she writes mostly feature articles. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, she travels whenever possible and lived in downtown Milan for four months.