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A beginner’s guide to aperitivo in Italy

The Italians go crazy for them – and it's easy to see why. Here, The Local's Patrick Browne gives you the lowdown on one of Italy's most treasured rituals: the aperitivo.

A beginner's guide to aperitivo in Italy
Apericena or Aperitivo? Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

They are long leisurely affairs to be undertaken with friends in early or late evening, the food is usually more than decent and they are affordable even on the most meagre of budgets. All you need to do is buy a drink and your food is free. Shall we?

I'd really love to go out to dinner, but I can't afford it…

It's only going to cost €5-12 depending where we go. Are you sure you don't want to come? I know an excellent place….

Okay then. But it's my first time…

Well don't look so nervous. We're only going to the pub for an apericena.

Apericena? I thought you said aperitivo?

Good point. A standard pre-dinner drink becomes an aperitivo when it is accompanied by more than just nuts or crisps. Maybe a small starter of goats cheese, olives, or something like that.

You can be sure you're at an apericena, however, when your drink is accompanied by dinner in the form of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Confusingly, the word aperitivo is often used to describe this too, which will probably annoy the traditionalists but hey-ho, we didn't make the rules.

Now that that's out the way we're ready to get going. All you need to do is order a drink.

But what should I drink?

For a traditional style aperitivo, a light (usually dry or bitter drink) will be consumed. Favourites include, Campari, Vermouth, Negroni, Aperol Spritz and Prosecco – but anything goes really. If you hit the right bar at the right time you can have your aperitivo with anything from a Weissbier to a mojito.


Photo: Paco Serinelli/AFP

Remember that it's going to be accompanying food, so excessively sweet or creamy cocktails are a no-no. But by far the most important thing is to take it slowly, and socialize.

Socialize? I normally just inhale my food and down my pint of lager…

No. The apericena/aperitivo is a social event. It's where you go on a first date, or to catch up with an old friend.

They're great if you're on a limited budget, too, so expect to find lots of hard-up and hungry students, travellers, and young professionals – all of whom will be chatting away noisily. So be prepared to talk.

What else do I need to know?

The aperitivo has an interesting history, and despite its popularity across different areas of Italy it is very much associated with Turin. Although some anthropologists claim the idea of a pre-dinner drink stretches back as far as the ancient Egyptians, the creator of the modern day aperitivo is generally credited as being Antonio Benedetto Carpano.

Carpano is known as the inventor of Vermouth which he first made in Turin in 1786 by infusing Moscato white wine with herbs and spices. Apparently the drink was considered perfect for opening the stomach before a good meal.

Within no time at all, the shop where Antonio worked on in piazza Castello was the most popular bar in Turin. Fast forward a couple of hundred years and the aperitivo culture is still very much part of daily life in Italy..

Thanks! My new friends loved that aperitivo story. But I'm still hungry and have finished my food. What can I do?

Look, the idea is to eat until you are full. The plates are normally tiny plastic things, so don't feel bad about going back for seconds (or thirds). You don't need to buy another drink.

In fact, you probably shouldn't buy another drink. Usually during aperitivo hours the prices of drinks are inflated because that's how the bars make their money.

READ ALSO: Five great spots for aperitivo on a budget in Milan


Photo: oneinchpunch/Deposit Photos

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FOOD & DRINK

RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study has revealed which of the most common 'crimes' against Italian cuisine are seen as most and least offensive.

Pasta with sauce on top and vegetables on the side.
The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash

It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.

And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.

The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.

At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.

Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.

Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.

Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.

However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.

Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.

1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).

2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 

3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).

4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement.

5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.

6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.

7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.

8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.

9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.

10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).

11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.

The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.

The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.

However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.

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