To me, there is quite possibly no better time and place than 7 PM in Italy — aka prime happy hour in Italy. Bold statement, but hear me out.
In the early evening on the streets of Italy, people sit down in bars and restaurants for aperitivo: a nice cocktail or beverage and some light cuisine. For food lovers like us, there are undoubtedly few things better than watching the sunset, a snack, and sipping on a delicious drink.
When I first went to Italy, all I knew about aperitivo was that I could order a drink and the server would also bring something out for me to eat. I didn’t understand why my aperitivo experience was different at every bar, though, and I definitely hadn’t explored the history behind this daily tradition.
Aperitivo sometimes gets shorthand-ed to “Italian happy hour,” but that doesn’t do it justice because it’s much more than a discount on a beverage.
To cover all the basics on aperitivo, we created this guide. It’s a deep-dive into Italian aperitivo — from its background and unspoken protocol — which will help you make the most of it next time you travel to Italy.
The History of Aperitivo
Like so many things in Italian culture, this too dates back to Roman times. It’s said that the richest of the ancient Romans would attend pre-dinner cocktail hours with alcoholic drinks and an array of hors d'œuvres. These gustatio gave them the chance to socialize with others in high society before an extravagant, multi-course cena, their main meal of the day that could last up to eight hours!
The modern-style that’s commonplace in Italy today is thought to have originated in the 18th century in Torino. A distiller named Antonio Benedetto Carpano created a vermouth (yes, the same vermouth we use to make our Americano cocktails) from white wine and a combination of herbs and spices. Then King Vittorio Emanuele II loved the tangy beverage so much he called it his pre-dinner drink of choice.
Whereas only the wealthy could partake in gustatio, ordinary Italians could afford Carpano’s Vermouth as a light refreshment. He revived the trend from Ancient Rome, except this time around it was called aperitivo. Since then, the cultural ritual of aperitivo has spread beyond Torino and throughout all of Italy.
What Is Aperitivo?
The meaning of aperitivo comes from the verb aprire, which means “to open;” fitting since it is intended to open your stomach up to help prepare for a delicious dinner.
Keep in mind, dinner in Italy happens later than we’re used to in the United States — most Italians wouldn’t imagine sitting down anytime before 8pm for their evening meal, and restaurants don’t truly get busy until 9 PM.
Aperitivo acts as a way to have something to eat and drink that will whet your appetite, preparing you for the main dinner event a couple hours later. It typically runs from 7 PM to 9 PM (although I’ve found some places that start as early as 6 PM).
The Aperitivo Menu: Cocktails And Cuisine
The beverages listed on an aperitivo menu help to stimulate appetite. You’ll often see Italians sipping on a bubbling prosecco or some of our favorite Italian aperitivo cocktails (my personal favorite is the Aperol Spritz). The drinks are light and dry — and sometimes even a little herbal or bitter — rather than super sugary cocktails that will only fill you up.
The food options from bars and restaurants during aperitivo hour will vary. Some places will simply offer a small bowl of patatine (potato chips) while others may have full-on finger food buffets such as a mini risotto, a charcuterie spread, or even small focaccia bites. Restaurants may list what their aperitivo hour includes or you can see what others have on their table to get an idea.
Aside from when hanging in bars or club settings, Italians rarely drink without also eating — food and beverage go hand in hand in Italian culture. Locals love to unwind at the end of a workday, catch up with friends, and enjoy a libation. And since nothing beats experiencing the local culture of a destination when traveling, aperitivo in Italy is a must.
As you sit down with one of our travel guides for food lovers and plan out your next trip to Italy, you’ll also want to make a point to experience the best Italian aperitivo. In order to do that, here’s some helpful unspoken aperitivo etiquette that locals follow.
Not All Restaurants Or Bars Offer Aperitivo
If you actively want to find a place that offers aperitivo, look for a spot that clearly states so on a sign or on their menu. Look specifically for the word "aperitivo.” If they mention “cocktail hour” or “happy hour,” they’re likely catering to tourists.
If you’re still not sure, you can just ask. "Fate aperitivo? A che ora?" (Do you have aperitivo? At what time?)
Aperitivo Starts No Earlier Than 6 PM
One of the biggest tips you must know when eating in Italy is that certain meals occur at different times than you might be used to -- aperitivo will start no earlier than 6 PM and typically lasts until 8 PM or 9 PM.
Don’t Overstay Your Welcome At Restaurants
Restaurants serving aperitivo appreciate when guests leave before dinnertime. Unless you’re planning on also eating dinner there, finish your aperitivo by 9pm.
No Need To Overload — Dinner Is Around The Corner!
I myself have been tempted to fill up on the tasty snacks my server brings out, but the whole point of aperitivo is to prepare the stomach for dinner and not replace it entirely (though some of our local friends occasionally do aperitivo instead of a full dinner). Plus, you can only eat so many patatine before it’s time for a real meal!
If you find yourself at an aperitivo buffet, it’s polite to only take one small plate at a time (and to use a clean plate every time). This presents more of a chance to DIY your aperitivo snack than to pile your plate sky-high.
The Range And Quality (And Price) Varies
You’ll have no shortage of choices for aperitivo hour in Italy. As always, though, your best bet will be to walk a few blocks away from the main tourist area in order to find the best options.
Make Reservations For Larger Parties
If your party exceeds four people, you can call ahead to alert the bar or restaurant. They’ll have an easier time seating you with advanced notice
Once, while enjoying aperitivo at Pimm’s Good (one of my favorite spots, and what I consider one of the best aperitivos in Rome) I mentioned to the server I am vegetarian and asked them to sub out meat on the aperitivo platter. They gave me a funny look and, sure enough, my aperitivo platter still had meat.
The food aspect to aperitivo hour isn’t really something you select off of a menu; rather, it’s given to you. As such, don’t expect to make any substitutions or changes to what they provide. The best way to think about aperitivo is it’s merely a chance to have a tasty drink to sip on — any food included is a cherry on top!
The Best Aperitivo Cocktail Recipes To Make At Home
Looking to bring a little Italy into your home? We have some favorite Italian aperitivo cocktails that will transport you there.
The bitterness of the Aperol combined with the bubbles of Prosecco makes this drink, which originated in Venice, perfect for hot Italian days.
This drink includes Campari, which has a higher alcohol content than Aperol but tastes less sweet. The sparkling water makes it extra refreshing.
Try one of the cocktails that started aperitivo in the first place! Expect hints of licorice root and deep fruit flavors.
What’s your aperitivo drink of choice? Let us know your favorite in the comments below!
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More Italy On Salt & Wind Travel
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Photo Credit: Christine Davis