While many might assume that aperitivo is simply the Italian version of an American happy hour, the two time-honored traditions are actually wildly different in origins, philosophy, and even spirits.
The American happy hour is thought to have originated with the U.S. Navy circa 1913, when regular bouts of entertainment were organized for the officers. They called these events “happy hours,” and they typically involved movies and wrestling matches. Bringing drinks into the mix only started during Prohibition, when the term and activity moved ashore. It was in the 1920s that speak-easies would offer patrons the chance to consume notable amounts of liquor before they went off to dinner in public restaurants where alcohol was banned. Prohibition was reversed in 1933, and the post-work happy hour went mainstream in the 1950s and ’60s—the period now typically described as the Mad Men era.
Whereas the American happy hour today is characterized by discounted drinks and a celebration marking the end of the day, the Italian aperitivo is exactly the opposite—it signals the start of your night.
The word aperitivo comes from the Italian word aprire, which means to open, and aperitivo is intended to open your palate for a spectacular meal to come dopo, or later. Set at sundown, aperitivo typically involves a gathering of friends and one of two approaches to service—the first includes a small sampling of olives, chips, nuts, or toasts with your drink, the second may offer a full buffet of light snacks and salads to choose from. For many, the overall experience is meant to conjure the Italian ideal of la bella figura—and celebrating quality over convenience and enjoying a relaxing early evening in conversation. There is no rush in aperitivo.
The drinks of aperitivo are generally low in alcohol content (such as vermouth) and typified by bitter spirits—or amari—such as Campari and Aperol. It’s widely believed that it was, in fact, Gaspare Campari who formalized the tradition of consuming bitters for aperitivo in 1860, when he began selling his popular crimson-red liqueur to taverns throughout northern Italy. If you’re a fan of Campari, like I am, you may be surprised to learn that, until 2006, Campari’s brilliant color came from a natural dye sourced from cochineal insects (today the color is artificial).
Getting to know your aperitivo bitters: Campari is an infusion of herbs and fruit, including cherry, cascarilla, clove, rhubarb, cinnamon, and orange peel. Aperol is often referred to as Campari’s sweeter cousin, as it’s made of gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona. Both of these bitters are often served with soda and a splash of prosecco. Of course, Campari also plays an important role in the much loved Negroni, and Aperol is synonymous with its quintessential spritz. Another aperitivo bitter to consider is Cynar, which is made with artichokes. Yes, artichokes, which Cynar’s creator, Angelo Dalle Molle, believed supported healthy digestion. He launched his product in 1952 with the tagline “against the strain of modern life,” which really is a perfect way to summarize the joy and refreshment meant to characterize any aperitivo.