I’d like to mention one of my favorites of all Italian traditions: the aperitivo. What is an aperitivo in Italy? The term literally means “to open your appetite,” and as you might have noticed, the word sounds close to what we would call an “appetizer” in English, and that’s partly what it is—a little appetizer before the main meal of the evening.  

But it’s also part Happy Hour. However, even when you combine the two concepts, it still doesn’t quite define what it means as a social phenomenon. It’s really about taking a little bit of time between the working day and the family dinner to socialize with friends in a festive atmosphere.

You see, food and wine and socializing always go hand in hand. That’s why you’ll never find a drive-through window in Italy. Eating in your car carries the same stigma as urinating in public.  Only brutish, socially outcast people engage in such tasteless activities. 

What Is Italian Aperitivo?

Typically, aperitivo begins around 7:00 p.m. and lasts an hour or so. You pay one price and you get a drink of your choice—traditionally a Campari cocktail, a Prosecco, or a glass of wine—and an assortment of small bites. 

Yes, in accordance with the “Italian Food Rules,” it MUST come with something to eat. Drinking on an empty stomach is not an option. Even if you order a drink at a cafe outside of aperitivo hour, they’ll still give you something to munch on. I can’t confirm it, but I think it might actually be a law in Italy.

There are several grades of aperitivo. For example, you might have one at your local bar and it will consist of merely a drink, some nuts, olives, and small finger sandwiches, which will cost about 5 Euros.  

Or you can go to a fancy restaurant or cocktail lounge and for 10-15 Euros you’ll get a much more elaborate display of food (un aperitivo rinforzato), including pasta dishes and sliced meats and cheeses. Often this can be your meal for the evening, making it an affordable dinner option if you’re alone or not in the mood for a big sit-down affair. 

(This is an especially good idea for middle-aged American male expats, like myself, who are not to be trusted near stoves, ovens, or any form of open flames.)

What Are Stuzzichini?

The word “stuzzichini” is a plural noun in Italian that comes from the verb “stuzzicare,” which means “to stimulate” or “to whet” or “to tease.” The word can be translated as “little nibbles” or “snacks” in English, but it carries another connotation in Italian that reflects the social and cultural significance of the aperitivo.

What Are Stuzzichini?

So the definition of “stuzzichini” refers to the literal meaning of small, bite-sized snacks that are served during the aperitivo. These can include olives, nuts, cheese, cured meats, bruschetta, and other small dishes that are meant to be shared among a group of people.

However, on a deeper level, “stuzzichini” reflects the social and cultural significance of the aperitivo as a whole. The idea of “teasing” or “stimulating” the palate with small snacks and light drinks is meant to create a sense of anticipation and pleasure that can be shared among friends or family.

Typical Food For an Aperitivo in Italy

The specific types of stuzzichini can vary depending on the region, but there are some common options that are popular throughout Italy.

Olives are a staple of the aperitivo spread and can be found in many different varieties, including green, black, and even stuffed. Other popular options include nuts such as almonds and pistachios, which are often roasted and salted for added flavor.

Cheese is another popular option, and there are many different types that are commonly served during the aperitivo. Some of the most popular include Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino, and gorgonzola, all of which pair well with a variety of different drinks.

Cured meats are also a popular option and are often served sliced thinly alongside bread or crackers. Some of the most popular types of cured meats include prosciutto, salami, and mortadella.

Typical Food in an Aperitivo

In Venice they have little cafes that are devoted almost exclusively to this activity. They are called “bàcari” and there you can try their cicchetti (small appetizers) and ombrette (small glasses of local wine). In Tuscany they often serve crostini, which are topped with fegatini (chicken liver patè), wild mushrooms, or an olive tapenade. 

Other options can include small sandwiches, dips such as Sicilian caponata, and even small pizzas or savory tarts. The key is to have a variety of different options that can be shared among a group of people and that pair well with the drinks being served.

Overall, the stuzzichini served during the aperitivo are designed to be light and flavorful, providing the perfect accompaniment to a pre-dinner drink and setting the stage for a delicious Italian meal. 

What To Drink For an Aperitivo in Italy?

It’s worthwhile to point out that, unlike Happy Hour, this little interval typically consists of ONE drink only and should not be viewed as an occasion to get drunk. Only German tourists, British expats, and American college students do that…and it’s considered very bad form. If you see someone drunk in public in Italy, he or she is certainly NOT an Italian. 

So… if you’re only going to have one drink, you’d better make it a good one. I suggest a Negroni: equal parts Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist of lemon. It is the ideal choice before dinner to heighten your appetite and prepare your stomach for the meal.

negroni with aperitivo

History of the Aperitivo in Italy

The origins of the aperitivo can be traced back to Italy in the late 18th century, specifically to the city of Turin. At this time, Turin was a bustling industrial center, and a growing middle class had emerged, eager to indulge in the finer things in life.

One of these new luxuries was vermouth, a fortified wine that was infused with botanicals such as wormwood, cinnamon, and cloves. The creator of the first commercial vermouth was a man named Antonio Benedetto Carpano, who produced his famous vermouth in 1786.

Carpano’s vermouth was an instant success, and it quickly became a popular aperitif among the people of Turin. The word “aperitivo” comes from the Latin word “aperire,” meaning “to open,” and it refers to the idea of opening the palate before a meal. Vermouth was the perfect Italian drink for this purpose, with its complex flavors and bitter notes that were said to stimulate the appetite.

As vermouth grew in popularity, other drinks were added to the aperitivo menu, including bitters, liqueurs, and fortified wines such as Campari, Aperol, and Cinzano. These drinks were served with a variety of snacks or small dishes, known as “stuzzichini,” which were designed to complement the drinks and to stimulate the appetite.

The aperitivo became a beloved ritual in Turin and other cities throughout Italy, and it was soon adopted as a way of life. The aperitivo hour became a time for people to unwind after work, catch up with friends, and socialize before dinner. Today, the aperitivo is a classic Italian tradition, and it is enjoyed throughout the country as a way of celebrating life and enjoying the finer things.

On the way home from your job, you make a passeggiata (evening stroll), stopping for a little window shopping along the way, and then finally ending up at the bar where you’ll have a small bite to eat with some friends while chatting about soccer. The whole of Italian culture all comes together during an aperitivo in Italy. 

Whatever your preference, don’t miss the opportunity to participate in this timeless tradition while in Italy…or even recreate the vibe in your own home.  It’s the best of Italy all rolled up into one hour! Salute!

Rick Zullo

Former doctor, current science teacher, and life-long food lover, Rick's passion for Mediterranean cuisine was ignited while living as an expat in Rome, Italy. 


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