Head to an Italian bar around 6 or 7 pm, and you're likely to encounter a bar piled high with delicious snacks while a gaggle of Italians surround it talking animatedly (how else do Italians talk?), sipping glasses of prosecco and nibbling away. This crowd is enjoying a classic Italian tradition, the before-dinner drink known as l'aperitivo.
L'aperitivo italiano, though in essence simply a pre-dinner drink, is actually much more than that. First of all, every aperitivo must include a little something to snack on, and the fancier aperitivi may offer much more. In Milan, where the aperitivo is extremely popular, many bars serve full buffets that can include pizza, salads, pasta dishes, and even dessert. All this comes free with the purchase of a single drink, which makes the aperitivo a particularly attractive option for budget-conscious young milanesi.
In other regions, the aperitivo is somewhat less extravagant, but it always includes at least a few stuzzichini - snacks - to go with the drinks. Popular stuzzichini include olives, pizzette (mini-pizzas), cured meats and cheeses, and even potato chips. In some places, particularly on weekends, Italians may indulge in an aperitivo before lunch, in addition to the aperitivo before dinner!
In addition to food and drink, the third vital element in the aperitivo italiano is conversation, of which there is usually plenty! The drink itself is almost an excuse, a beverage to be nursed slowly while the drinker engages in pleasant smalltalk with the bartender or perhaps a heated discussion with friends or a bit of chitchat with a potential love interest. The aperitivo is a time to relax and forget about the worries and stresses of the day, to enjoy the evening stretching out ahead, and yes, also to enjoy a bit of good food and wine!
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