Cucina Conversations: the Italian aperitivo

Ritual: (noun) ‘a series of actions or type of behaviour regularly and invariably followed by someone’; (adjective) (of an action) ‘arising from convention or habit’. Italy is home to many of these, especially regarding food and drink. There’s the pre-meal one which involves whetting your appetite before a meal with an alcoholic drink accompanied by some savoury nibbles. That’s the aperitivo. Then, there are the shots of grappe and infused liqueurs served by your hosts to help you digest a hearty meal. That’s the digestivo. This month, the topic for our Cucina Conversations roundtable is about these Italian pre- and post-meal drinking rituals. Francesca, Lisa, Daniela and Marialuisa are all sharing recipes for bite-sized goodies to accompany your flutes, stemmed glasses and ice-filled tumblers come aperitivo time. Carmen, on the other hand, is going down the digestif route and is making us some homemade limoncello. I will share some history about Italy’s most well-known aperitif drinks and liqueurs, recipes for two favourite pre-dinner Vermouth-based cocktails, plus some food and drink rules for taking part in this important social ritual. Oh, and I couldn’t help adding a concluding aside or two about the apericena phenomenon and a few addresses to enjoy an aperitivo in Turin and beyond.

A little bit of history
Turin, my adopted city, just happens to be the birthplace of modern Vermouth and consequently, the aperitivo. In 1786, the distiller Antonio Benedetto Carpano began serving his fortified and aromatised wine from his liquoreria (liquor shop) just off Piazza Castello. The shop quickly became the most popular in town and its signature drink the toast of the Savoy royal court. What was once a beverage made for medicinal purposes was now being marketed as something to be enjoyed socially. Carpano’s appetite-whetting ritual soon spread to fashionable cafès in other large Italian cities, such as Genoa, Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice and Milan. Other Piedmontese winemakers and herbalists – such as Luigi Rossi, the Cinzano brothers and Giulio Cocchi – followed in his footsteps and started producing Vermouth according to their own closely-guarded formulas. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the cities of Milan and Padua, came up with their own botanical-infused liqueurs – the jewel-toned Campari and Aperol, respectively.  These were also marketed as pre-dinner drinks, much like Vermouth had been earlier on.

Unlike today, Vermouth, Campari and relative latecomer Aperol (first produced in 1919), were almost always consumed liscio (straight) or on the rocks. Over time though, bartenders in Italy (and elsewhere) have discovered that these drinks’ aromatic complexity lend themselves perfectly to appetite-stimulating cocktails, such as the Americano, the Aperol-Spritz, the Negroni and that happy accident of a Negroni, the Negroni sbagliato.

The Negroni
In 1919, the fashionable cocktail of the period was the Milano-Torino (later on, better known as the Americano), so called for the provenance of its two main ingredients – Campari from Milan and sweet vermouth from Turin, respectively. Legend has it that one day that year in Florence, Count Camillo Negroni walked into Caffè Casoni (now Caffè Giacosa) and was unconvinced by the Milano-Torino bartender Fosco Scarselli had suggested preparing for him. Instead, the eccentric customer, inspired by a recent trip to London, instructed Scarselli to stiffen his drink with gin. Half a slice of orange was also used to garnish and distinguish the Count’s aperitivo from the other patrons.

Ingredients (serves 1)

  • 30 ml sweet vermouth
  • 30 ml Campari
  • 30 ml gin
  • Garnish: orange half wheel or orange zest

Build the gin, Campari and sweet vermouth in an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Stir and garnish with orange half wheel or zest.

Or combine the gin, Campari and sweet vermouth in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with orange half wheel or zest.

The Negroni’s ‘messed-up’ Milanese offshoot
For those who don’t care for the higher alcohol content of gin in the Negroni, we have a bartender at Milan’s Bar Basso to thank for ‘messing up’ Count Negroni’s 1919 invention in the early 1970s. Instead of gin, he grabbed a bottle of bubbly white wine to build the Florentine cocktail. Luckily enough, his customer was happy with the result, the Negroni sbagliato or ‘messed-up Negroni’. So were lots of other patrons and the rest, they say, is history.

Ingredients (serves 1)

  • 30 ml Campari
  • 30 ml sweet vermouth
  • 30 ml Prosecco or sparkling white wine
  • Garnish: orange half wheel or orange zest

Build the Campari, vermouth and Prosecco in an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Stir and garnish with the orange half wheel or orange zest.

Some drink rules
Campari, Aperol and Vermouth-based cocktails are not the only things you can drink at aperitivo time. It’s also perfectly acceptable to opt for a glass of bubbly white like Prosecco (my choice when I don’t feel like a cocktail) or a simple glass of red or rosé wine. As for the teetotallers, there’s no need for you to miss out on this ritual either. Bright-hued soft drinks such as Sanbitter and Crodino, are infused with similar botanticals to Campari and Aperol, minus the alcohol.

As a general rule, drinks consumed at aperitivo time are relatively low proof, with beverages containing 30 to 40 percent of alcohol, such as pomace brandies like grappa and infused liqueurs like amari and Carmen’s limoncello, more likely to be served as an ammazzacaffé – literally ‘coffee killer’ – to conclude a long and lazy meal. Cynar, a distinctly bitter artichoke-based amaro, is one of the few Italian liquors that’s been marketed as both an aperitif and digestif over the years.

Aperitif drinks also tend to be on the drier, bitter side. Amari and other liqueurs consumed after dinner, in contrast, generally have sweeter notes. Notable exceptions include the above-mentioned grappa,  Cynar and the mentholly Fernet. Truly an ammazzacaffé if there ever was one!

And some food rules
One of the pleasantest things about socialising – at home and about town – in Italy is the relative lack of binge-drinking and public displays of inebriation. It’s just not done, and I think it’s in great part due to the fact that most Italians will just not consume alcohol on an empty stomach. Alcohol is very much enjoyed for its tastes, as opposed to its effects and all bars and cafès will serve you complimentary nibbles like nuts, olives, pizzette and other tiny, savoury pastries to go with your pre-dinner drink. If hosting an aperitivo at your home, be sure to provide finger foods or other bite-sized morsels for your guests. Check out the links below for some recipe ideas.

The dreaded apericena
In recent years, it’s become annoyingly common in Italy for bars to serve an apericena (a combination of aperitivo and cena, meaning ‘dinner’), a larger, all-you-can-eat buffet, which completely goes against what the aperitivo is all about. You risk ruining rather than whetting your appetite before dinner, all because you’re tempted by the perceived value for money of having dinner for the price of a drink. Turin, with its large student population, has not been immune to this trend, and many of what my friend Alecia aptly describes as ‘destination aperitivo spots’ catering to people looking to fill up on the cheap, are very popular right now. Personally, I’d much rather save my pennies – not to mention my appetite – for a proper dinner, whether it’s at one of the city’s many eateries or better yet, at home.

Two favourites in Turin, plus one near the new country kitchen
For an aperitivo in its true, original torinese sense of the word, may I recommend a few places? There’s Caffè Mulassano, one of the aforementioned fashionable 19th century cafés, on Piazza Castello which makes light tramezzini or crustless sandwiches to accompany cocktails made with their housemade sweet vermouth. Not far away, in stunning Piazza Carignano, you’ll find the converted 19th century pharmacy, Farmacia del Cambio. Like its neighbouring sister establishment, the ultra posh Ristorante del Cambio, it’s not cheap (15 euro for a drink plus snacks) but their stuzzichini are of good quality and thank heavens, of obvious provenance. The latter cannot be said for many places serving an apericena. 

For a suggestion closer to the new country kitchen in the Monferrato, there’s the renovated inn Albergo Ristorante Ciocca in Castelnuovo Don Bosco’s main square. The nibbles they serve in the bar (pictured in some of this post’s photos) are prepared in the kitchen of the adjoining restaurant. If you stay on for lunch or dinner, the owners will make a point of offering you a shot of a wonderfully light and citrusy amaro (also pictured) once you’ve finished your meal and drunk your coffee. It’s produced by nearby Distilleria Quaglia according to their old family recipe.

Some ideas for stuzzicchini to serve alongside aperitifs at home before dinner time

N.B. some of the content (photos, recipes and text) in this post also appeared in an article I wrote about Vermouth for The Grand Wine Tour on 31 May 2017. 

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    I love the history behind the drink. I didn’t know that the idea to have an aperitivo came from Turin. All the best things were developed in Turin! LOL!

    Great insight and I like the blog. Keep up the good work. I have spent some time in Turin and wider Italy so appreciate the research you have done.

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