The tradition of Italian aperitivo is, by its very nature, a civilized affair. Drinks are light, lively, and low in alcohol. Snacks are simple, artful, and typically nibbly bites intended to be eaten with one’s hands. The equivalent of the U.S. happy hour, the aperitivo, or “opening,” is meant to provide stimulation, both socially and to one’s appetite, for the evening ahead. Many bars in Italy offer a modest buffet of snacks during aperitivo, where the purchase of a drink entitles you to a small plate of antipasti and the like. Contrary to the custom of happy hour in the States, however, where one might resourcefully make a gut-busting dinner out of discounted beers, free snack mix, and 50-cent wings, the point of aperitivo is restraint. Not filling up is the game. The main event is yet to come.
If you feel like you could go for a strong dose of civility right now, why not throw a supremely cool, low-commitment, early evening festa for a handful of friends in the Italian aperitivo style? Your kitchen, patio, or even conference room can provide a perfect setting, and since informality is the name of the game, you needn’t sweat too many details on this one.
The Italian language has a lovely way of saying “making something out of nothing,” which is “l’arte d’arrangiarsi.” The art of arranging oneself. Let this be your guide. Put the handful of Italian flags down and walk away. Run from the urge to acquire a red-checkered table cloth. Flee the scene if you had even a fleeting thought of googling “accordion player for hire.” We’re going here for classy and autentico. A set of wine glasses, either glass or plastic, stemmed or stemless, will serve for all beverages outlined below. Amass a set of mismatched appetizer plates from the nether regions of your cabinets, or get help from garage sales or resale stores for spunky charm. Try a contemporary Italian jazz artist on the sound system such as Piero Bittolo Bon’s album “Big Hell on Air.”
While it might go against everything we hold dear in this country regarding alcohol consumption, there is much to be cherished in a tradition that emphasizes fresh, lower-proof spirits to begin the evening. You need only a few key ingredients that, mostly in the vein of bubbles and bitters, will have a much larger impact on the impressed-ness of your guests than they will on your wallet. First, you’ll need a good amount of prosecco on hand, both as an easy option for those who fear you’re not trying hard enough to get them drunk, and as a mixer for option number two: spritzes. You might know them as Aperol Spritzes, but much in the same way buffalo wings are just “wings” in Buffalo, in Italy an Aperol Spritz is simply a spritz. Bubbly, lightly bitter, and beautiful in color, a spritz pairs as elegantly with light, salty snacks as it does with a setting sun. Finally, you might only think of vermouth as as that other ingredient that goes in your martini or Manhattan, but it is a lovely beverage in its own right—a fortified, aromatized wine that needs only some ice and perhaps a twist of citrus for it to sing for you. Cocchi di Torino with notes of absinthe and rhubarb is a good one to try.
Here’s where you can decide how hard you want to show off for this party. The beauty of aperitivo is that you can make an artful arrangement of olives, nuts, breadsticks, and an antipasto platter and call it a day—an approach which is both light enough to uphold the early evening spirit of the event, and hearty enough for anyone who wants to make a meal out of it. If you can’t fathom hosting an event where you don’t at least try to dazzle your guests with culinary prowess, prepare a few items that can be made ahead of time and served room temperature, such as Pickled Eggplant, Mini Frittatas, or Fava Bean and Pecorino Crostini. Finally, if you are struck with a rush of moxie that inspires you to toss civility to the curb, you can really crank it to undici (eleven) by setting up a fry station and putting out heavenly batches of Fried Chickpeas with Sage and Tomato-Basil Arancini.
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