La Dolce Vita ~ The Italian Aperitivo and How to Eat for Free in Milan

One of the sweetest moments of the Italian dolce vita is winding down and loosening up at the end of a busy day, or not so busy day, with an aperitivo.

Aperitivo at Zanarini in Bologna, Italy
Aperitivo at Zanarini in Bologna

Not to be mistaken with the French apéritif which describes just the pre-dinner drink - aperitivo is really all about the cute snacks you get together with your drink (for free) however the concept is the same: to stimulate your appetite for dinner.

Aperitivo in La Spezia
Aperitivo in La Spezia

It's the perfect way to tie yourself over until dinner time and avoid eating in an empty, lifeless restaurant, since in Italy and the most of Europe (excluding the UK), dinner is eaten later than Northern America, New Zealand or Australia. Italian food and customs vary between regions but the usual time to eat is around 9 - 10pm on weekdays, with many restaurants only opening around 8 - 8.30pm. 

Aperitivo in Siena, Italy
Aperol Spritzes in Siena

Aperitivi are usually served between 7 - 9pm however the more touristy ones begin earlier. Also you won't find it in every bar, so have a peek inside or at other tables before settling down. Some bars will serve you some nuts, olives, crips or crackers with your drink but this isn't the real deal.

Aperol Spritzes at Capri's elegant piazzetta
Capri's elegant Piazzetta serves great aperitivi but these snacks aren't quite up to par with the Northern Italian aperitivo experience

The real aperitivo is an array of light snacks such as mini panini, focaccia, other breads with meat and cheese, salads, arancini (deep fried risotto balls) or any other combination of bite sized delights. These are either served on little plates to your table, or in the form of a buffet where you help yourself. The unsaid rule is one plate per drink - after all it's meant to prepare you for dinner.

Aperitivo time at Zanarini in Bologna
Aperitivo time at Zanarini in Bologna

Aperitivo time at Zanarini in Bologna

It's funny discovering cultural differences when you're travelling. According to Italians it's easy to spot foreigners because they're the ones who are having a wine by itself (without any food) at a cafe. Back home in New Zealand, this is perfectly normal, in fact, it's one of my favourite past times! But in Europe it's a no-no to drink during the day without eating which is why you'll almost always be served with something little to nibble on... probably explains a few of the tourist connotations.

Aperitivo in Rome
Aperitivo in Rome - only 5EUR each

Since sugar aids digestion and suppresses appetite, traditional aperitivi are dry rather than sweet. They're also relatively lower in alcohol since high alcohol content dulls your tastebuds. Digestivi (after-dinner drinks) on the other hand are typically very sweet and higher in alcohol, for example: grappa, limoncello, sambuca, genepi, amaretto and sweet, fortified port-like wines such as vin santo and marsala.

The most traditional aperitvo drink is vermouth which is an aromatic potion-like wine that's been fortified with a spirit or brandy, infused with herbs, flowers, spices, seeds and/or fruits. Nowadays it's common to order a prosecco or other dry wine however the MOST popular drinks for aperitivo are the bright orange Aperol Spritz and my personal favourite, ruby red Campari Spritz. YUM!

Aperitivo in La Spezia
Aperitivo in La Spezia

Both Aperol and Campari are bitters that are mixed with prosecco and soda water to make a spritz, however Aperol is lower in alcohol (11%) and a sweeter tasting bitter, while Campari is super bitter and has an alcohol content of 23%.

Interesting Fact: Several studies have shown that people who enjoy bitter tasting things like black coffee, dark chocolate and Campari are more likely to be psychopaths...hmmm I love all three...

Although the culture of aperitivo has spread through many of Italy's major cities, it's more common in Northern Italy and without a doubt, the capital of aperitivo is Milan. This might have something to do with the fact that Gaspare Campari (the inventor of Campari) set up the famous Cafe Campari (now Camparina in Galleria) by Milan's beautiful Duomo in 1867. However having a bitter or dry drink with snacks before dinner didn't really become a 'thing' until the 1920s in fashionable Milan.

Aperitivo time in Manarola, Cinque Terre
Aperitivo time at Nessun Dorma - a bar in Manarola, Cinque Terre

You can order pretty much any cocktail as your aperitivo now. In recent years fierce competition between bars, growing tourism and young people on the hunt for more value, has created a new custom: the apericena. This is like aperitivo on steroids! Cena means dinner in Italian, so you basically order a drink and get unlimited access to a buffet of all types of hot and cold appertisers plus sweets.

At only 10 to 15EUR per person, if you're ever asked to go for apericena on a first date, you should RUN the other way. Otherwise it's one of the most fun experiences in Italy and a great way to socialise, meet people and, since you're technically only paying for the drink, have a free dinner!

Small part of the buffet at Long Island, an apericena bar in Milan
Small part of the buffet at Long Island, an apericena bar in Milan

If you want to experience the very best apericena and aperitivo in Milan, head to the lively, arty and semi-hipster Navigli District that runs along Milan's canals. Here you'll find tonnes of bars, restaurants and cafés with promoters outside many of them vying for your attention.

It can get hectic wandering through the crowd checking out each bar, so I'll make it easy for you:

For an aperitivo with the best view of the canals and a really cool relaxed vibe with trendy, arty people, head to Pigato. [Pigato: Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 45, 20143 Milano / +39 02 345 1614]

Chilled out aperitivo at Pigato in Milan
Chilled out aperitivo at Pigato in Milan's Navigli District

If you're after apericena, you can't beat Long Island - it serves the most epic buffet spread and seriously knock-your-socks-off strong cocktails. [Long Island: Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 5, Milano / +39 02 8324 2262]

Aperitivo time at Long Island in Milan's Navigli District - the first of many plates!
Aperitivo time at Long Island in Milan's Navigli District - the first of many plates!

At Long Island I ordered a Negrosky (Martini Rosso, vodka and Campari) that was so strong I could have lit a fire if I sang - perfect if you're on a budget and prepping for a big night out. While Matt's Spritz Island (lemonade, sugar, vodka, rum, gin, triple sec and Aperol) was absolutely delicious. The buffet was very impressive. There were all different types of pasta, seafood, salads, meats, cheeses, pizzas, even whole roast chickens with different types of potatoes! They also catered for sweet tooths with a large range of cakes, puddings and lollies. It was mind-boggling! Kind of like Christmas, a kids party and big family barbecue all in one.

Navigli District at Milan's canals, Italy
Navigli District at Milan's canals

By 8pm all along the side of the canals there are merry people as far as the eye can see, it's such a fun atmosphere, you've got to experience it!

Where are your favourite places for aperitivo and apericena?