Traditionally, the word aperitivo used to indicate a drink (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) served before a meal. It has always been common for Italians, at least here in Tuscany, to meet at a bar before going out to dinner with friends. Typically, if we have plans to go to dinner with a group of friends, nobody goes to the restaurant and sits down inside until everybody has showed up, something which used to drive my Canadian husband crazy! He was not used to standing around waiting for the usual late friend before being able to grab a drink! But what one would consider to be “late” in Italy, as most people know, is a very flexible concept!
Up until not long ago, the most popular apéritif drinks were Campari and Cinzano. Then prosecco, a dry sparkling wine similar to French Champagne, took its place. Soon, essentially any cocktail became available as an aperitivo, some of which, such as Negroni, are strong purely alcoholic drinks.
Italians, at least up until to my generation, were not heavy drinkers. Drunkenness was a social taboo, and most people would not drink at all, with the exception of a glass of wine with their meal. For this reason non-alcoholic drinks and cocktails have always been quite popular. For those who were brave enough to venture an alcoholic drink on an empty stomach, bars started to provide something for people to nibble on while drinking. It was mainly very simple snacks such as chips, salatini (variously shaped and flavoured crackers), olives, and capers.
Little by little, the aperitivo became a fashionable thing to do, rather than just a way to kill time before dinner. Now, to go out for an aperitivo means to go to a bar where you order and pay for a drink and help yourself to a rich buffet of finger foods, pasta or rice salads, vegetable salads, cured meats, pizzette, and other more elaborate dishes for free. The drink might be slightly more expensive than it would be in a bar that does traditional apéritif (with no buffet), but the difference is minimal and sometimes the price is exactly the same. Aperitivo is usually served between 7 pm and 8.30 pm. If you go to a very popular bar, you might not find a table to sit at: but that’s normal. Most people just stand around as they would at a cocktail party.
Aperitivo has become very popular in Tuscany, especially in the larger centers. My favourite places for an aperitivo in Pisa are:
- Modus Bibendi: a very stylish wine bar, with a great interior design. It’s in Via Cavalca, just a few steps away from the vegetable market of Piazza delle Vettovaglie.
- Argini e Margini: a recently opened bar on the river bank (Lungarno Galileo – Scalo dei Renaioli), with tables on a deck by the river and a floating restaurant serving seafood. They have a stand which serves fried seafood for as little as 4 euros a portion. They often have live music. A really nice spot in town and perfect for the hot summer evenings.
- Caffetteria delle Vettovaglie: one of the first bars to offer aperitivo. It is very popular. It has tables in Piazza delle Vettovaglie itself: a really nice spot.
There are many more for sure, but these are the ones I’ve tried so far.
In Grosseto I’ve been to Bar Siracusa in Via Matteotti (it’s ok), and Bar Dribbling in Via Ximenes. I’ve heard it’s become too crowded now. I’ve also heard of a new bar in Piazza Volturno, Bar Cristall, but I don’t think that it’s my kind of place (I like informal, relaxed places rather than trendy places).
In Siena I have been several times to a bar in Via di Vallerozzi, only a few steps away from Porta Ovile, called Caffè La Piazzetta.
As you can guess, I love aperitivo. Here are my top 5 reasons to choose an aperitivo over a seated dinner:
- It’s at the perfect time in the evening. I often don’t have the strength to go back home after work and go out again and maybe stay up late. This way I can just stay out a little longer, and by 9 pm I’m home.
- It’s inexpensive. Unless you plan on drinking like a fish, you can really have a full meal with as little as 5 euros.
- It’s fun. I like the selection of different finger foods, some of which are really creative. Often there is live music, so it is almost like being at a party.
- It’s informal. No need to spend much time sitting down. You can stand outside, you can walk around, take it easy.
- It can be social. It’s the perfect place to mix and mingle and make new friends.
Did I mention that it is very inexpensive…?