Step into Gran Caffe L’Aquila on a Friday evening, and you may feel like you’ve wandered out of Center City and into a bar in, say, Venice.
Staffers chatter in Italian, and, in the back, past the displays of gelati and panini, the marble-topped bar is laden with goblets of sparkling vermilion drink. Crowding in for drinks are regulars like Leontine Benedicenti, 39, a Milanese expatriate who was treating her homesickness with the preferred remedy, an Aperol Spritz.
This is aperitivo, the Italian answer to happy hour.
“It’s a social experience,” Benedicenti says. “I feel like I’m home here.”
Though distinctly Italian, the aperitivo concept has arrived stateside.
It pairs snacks and small plates with low-alcohol cocktails ideal for day drinking, particularly in the summertime – think a spritz of bitter herbal liqueur, like Campari or Aperol, poured into Prosecco and topped with soda, or fortified wine like vermouth served over ice.
It’s appearing in more bars on this side of the Atlantic. But it’s a formula low-maintenance enough to replicate at home, with easygoing, three-ingredient cocktails, a few salty and savory snacks – and a couple of new cookbooks to serve as your guide.
Marisa Huff, author of Aperitivo: The Cocktail Culture of Italy (Rizzoli, 2016, $35 at Scarlett Alley, 241 Race St., and at Robertson’s of Chestnut Hill, 8501 Germantown Ave.) explains that the word aperitivo describes both the cocktail itself and the practice, particularly in Northern Italian cities, of getting together and enjoying it.
“In Milan, every bar will put out a buffet of food, or have the kitchen send out small plates,” she said. It’s a post-work, predinner practice, from 6 to 9 p.m. “It’s the social moment of the day once work is over. It’s distinguished from American happy hour in many ways. For one, it’s really about taking the time to relax and be with friends. Definitely the goal is not to get drunk. And rather than being cheaper, drinks might be more expensive because food is included.”
Many who’ve encountered aperitivo as tourists can’t resist importing it.
That includes Tenaya Darlington, Philadelphia coauthor of The New Cocktail Hour (Running Press, 2016, $22 at Barnes & Noble).
“One of my great memories of traveling in Italy is 4 o’clock, you wander to the piazza, the light is beginning to dim and then waiters start to appear with these beautiful bright-orange cocktails, and it just looks like sunset in a glass,” she said. “You have a drink and feel completely rejuvenated. It’s this aesthetic experience.”
Back at home, she said, the Aperol Spritz loses nothing in translation.
“It has a little sparkle to it, a little sweetness, a little bitterness,” she said. “It’s a perfect stoop drink.”
For a more upscale presentation, try Assembly, the rooftop bar at the Logan Hotel, where the cocktail comes with lemon and rosemary.
Or sip it from a branded glass at Gran Caffe L’Aquila, which teamed with manufacturer Gruppo Campari in a promotion.
“More than half of what we sell at the bar is Aperol Spritz,” owner Riccardo Longo said. “Number two is the Negroni, and then everything else.”
The bar also serves other aperitivos: the Bicicletta, with Campari, white wine, and soda; and the Americano, with Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda.
Talia Baiocchi, coauthor of Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, with Recipes (Ten Speed Press, 2016, $18.99 at Barnes & Noble), said it’s no surprise such drinks are gaining popularity.
It’s an intersection, she said, of the craft cocktail movement and “a trend that’s been developing over the last half decade of lower-alcohol drinks: session beers, low-alcohol wines. A spritz is an embodiment of that trend.”
She’ll be signing her book, a celebration of the spritz, during happy hour at Lo Spiedo(4503 S. Broad St., 215-282-3184) from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday.
But once you find an aperitivo you like, replicating it at home or – creating new ones – is not difficult. Baiocchi notes many of her recipes have just three ingredients: bitter liqueur, wine, and soda.
“This is a great gateway for people just getting into craft cocktails who don’t have a huge home bar.”
Huff advises stocking up on the basics: Campari, sweet vermouth, gin, Prosecco, and soda water.
“With those alone, you can make a number of cocktails. Campari and vermouth is the Mi-To. Add soda water, and it’s an Americano. Add Prosecco and it’s a spritz, or gin for a Negroni,” she said. “You can set out cards with simple instructions and let guests play around.”
If you don’t care for the bitterness of Campari or Aperol, there are other options within the aperitivo tradition. Huff suggests investing in good sweet vermouth, like Carpano Antica; it’s coming back into fashion and can be sipped neat, on ice, or in spritz with soda.
Or mix it in a cocktail like the Old Hickory, with dry vermouth (like Dolin), and orange and Peychaud’s bitters; Darlington notes the New Orleans classic is a great use for leftover ingredients from martinis and Manhattans.
“That’s the sort of drink you can have and still go do a yoga class,” she said.
Want to host your own aperitivo hour? It’s as simple as a good cocktail and a few snacks.
In Italy, some bars serve only olives, almonds, and potato chips. Spritz offers upscale takes on this trio, plus snacks like crostini with salt cod or sage and white beans. Aperitivo proposes focaccia, baked mussels, or prosciutto-wrapped vegetables.
“It doesn’t have to be precise,” Huff said. “No one is going to judge you and say, ‘That’s not the way to do it.’ That’s also something that’s true about Italian cooking. Many recipe books won’t include quantities. They’ll just say, Q.B., or quanto basta: Add as much as is needed.”
Makes 1 cocktail
11/2 ounces Campari
3/4 ounce Dolin Rouge
3/4 ounce Carpano Antica
4 ounces pilsner
1. Pour Campari and vermouths into a Collins glass over ice.
2. Top with pilsner and garnish with orange.
– Damon Boelte, from Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, by Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseu
Note: This is Boelte’s twist on the Americano, a classic aperitivo. For the traditional version, pour 11/2 ounces Campari and 11/2 ounces sweet vermouth into a Collins glass over ice, top with soda water, and garnish with an orange wheel.
Makes 1 cocktail
2 ounces Aperol
3 ounces Prosecco
Splash of soda water
Half an orange slice
Fill a wineglass half-full of ice. Add Aperol, then Prosecco. Top with a splash of sparkling water, stir, and then drop in an orange slice.
Makes 1 cocktail
1 1/2 ounces dry white wine
1 ounce Campari
1/2 ounce soda water
1 orange slice
1 green olive (optional)
1. Fill a rocks glass with 3 or 4 ice cubes. Add the white wine, Campari, and soda water. 2. Stir with a bar spoon, then add the orange slice and an olive on a cocktail skewer.
– Marisa Huff, Aperitivo: The Cocktail Culture of Italy
Note: Easy variations include Aperol Spritz (replace the Campari with Aperol) and Spritz Bianco (equal parts white wine and soda, with a lemon garnish and no liqueur or olive).