Mar 252011

Italians are fond of the social event, usually held at a café or a bar, called the aperitivo, what an Anglophone might call an aperitif. Normally one meets up with friends before dinner and has a small, mildly alcoholic drink whose bitterness supposedly opens the stomach (the etymology here should be obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Latin its Romance daughters) and prepares the consumants for the light snack that accompanies the drink, and ultimately for dinner. This last part may seem illogical—eating a snack to make oneself hungry for dinner—but the Italians believe that L’appetito viene mangiando, “Appetite comes when you eat.”

The "Spritz," a typical Italian aperitivo drink, made with Aperol, water, and prosecco.

As with all things culinary, Italians are wont to project their present-day traditions as far back into the past as possible, the link-up with any kind of Roman tradition being the ultimate goal of any food mythologizing. Newspaper articles in the culture sections of Italian dailies usually start with the Egyptians, though they inevitably mention the invention of vermouth, a wine fortified and flavored with wormwood (Vermut in German, the source of the active ingredient in the drink absinthe), by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in 1786. Recipes were adapted and copies were made by companies who have given their names to brands that we recognize today—Martini or Cinzano—and other bitter pre-dinner drinks were invented as well (Campari, Aperol).

The history of the aperitivo is ultimately as long or as short as one is narrow or broad with the definition. If one refers solely to the consumption of alcohol flavored with bitter herbs, one can look back the medieval tradition of theriacs (teriaca) or the nineteenth-century tonics (rosolio), though these were not drunk for pleasure, but rather for medicinal purposes. As discussed above, we can date the invention on Vermouth to 1786, but the popularity of these drinks did not arrive until the mid- to late-1800s. The drinking of these bitter drinks with a little food, though, was something that began in Milan in the 1920s, but the famous Milanese aperitivo of today, where one can buy a drink and for that price eat a dinner, comes as a sort of translated copy of the American “Happy Hour” in the 1970s.

More interesting, perhaps, than the history of the aperitivo is its sociological aspect. An aperitivo offers students the possibility to “go out to dinner” without actually spending the money that a full meal would cost; it also let’s one “test out” both new friends and possible significant others at an intermediate social stage before the real test of a dinner. This point of view on the aperitivo calls out for further investigation.  ZN


For more information, see  the paper Rachel Black has written on the history of the digestivo.

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