Aperitivo is practically an institution in Italy. An early evening drink, aperitivo is supposed to stimulate the appetite before dinner, compared to digestivo, a drink to help with digestion after dinner. Although this sounds like Italians using an old excuse to enjoy a good drink – and why not? — aperitivo is much more of a social and lifestyle choice rather than just a medicinal one.
Walking around Rome in the early evening, all the terraces and bars are filled with people meeting friends, catching up after work before going home, or couples enjoying the golden light of the afternoon before sunset.
The drinks are usually accompanied by some light – and often free – snacks, ranging from olives, chips, chips, salami or even small arancini or suppli, which often serve as antipasti.
It’s the time when, after a day’s sightseeing, you can sit down and relax, even in crowded, popular hotspots, because even the most touristy bars can’t go too far wrong when mixing a drink.
In the name of research, I drank my way through a couple of aperitivos in Rome recently, using any excuse to sit down in a bar, drink in hand, to enjoy the sunset, people-watching and the view. Or the simple dolce far nientedoing nothing and loving every minute.
You will notice that many of the Italian aperitivos are orange in color as they are usually either made with Campari or Aperol. But each is subtly different and appeals to different tastes. And you’ll also see beer and wine being drunk, but these aren’t half as fun as the proper Italian aperitivos, or, if you want to keep it Italian: aperitifs.
Here are some great drinks I tried, not all originating in Rome, but tried and tested there.
Let’s start with Campari, because it is not only drunk neat, on the rocks, with soda or other mixers, but it is also the base for many Italian aperitivos. Like many foods with a strong and distinctive taste, people either tend to hate it or love it. Campari is, let’s face it, very bitter. And it is, in fact classified under “bitters” in the liquor dictionary, denoting alcoholic beverages made with bitter or sour botanical matter. It’s quite difficult to find out exactly what the ingredients in Campari are, apart from a lot of bitter herbs that few people have ever heard of, but it’s an easily spotted drink, with its orange hue, redder than Aperol, but still bright.
Campari always reminds me of my father, who always drank it either on ice or with some soda. Tasting it when I was younger made me cringe, but somehow it also seems to have paved the way for my taste for Campari and Campari-infused drinks as an adult.
And when you go out for an aperitivo in Italy, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that isn’t in any way related to Campari. To get the taste, but without having to pull a face, try a Campari Orange, a small measure of Campari diluted with fresh orange juice. You get the sweetness of the orange, but it is cut through with the bitterness of the Campari which makes the orange juice less sweet and the Campari less bitter. A win-win, really.
2. Aperol Spritz
Probably the most popular aperitivo in Italy – and France for that matter – is the Aperol Spritz, easily recognizable as the sparkling neon-orange drink served with an orange slice and plenty of ice in a rather large glass. Aperol is an Italian bitter made with the herb gentian; cinchona, a flowering plant; and rhubarb and mixed with prosecco and soda to make the spritz version, which is lighter and longer. Also sometimes referred to as the Spritz Veneziano, I’ve found that in Venice the original Spritz you order can often simply be a white wine spritzer rather than an Aperol Spritz. Wherever you go in Rome in the early evening, the bright orange color calls you from afar.
For the best location to enjoy an Aperol Spritz in addition to great views and the sunset, head straight to Il Palazzetto, one of my favorite rooftop terraces in Rome right at the top of the Spanish Steps.
A firm favorite among Romans is The Americano, not to be confused with the coffee of the same name. The Americano is another spritz, also of an orange hue, but made with DiBaldo 721 Vermouth, Campari and soda. The bitter taste of Campari is there, but diffused by the sweet vermouth taste, and made fresher and lighter with the soda. Less alcoholic than Aperol Spritz because it doesn’t have prosecco in it, it’s a refreshingly light summer drink.
The travel-inspired cocktail menu at Baccano – right next to the Trevi Fountain and open all day for food and drink – features the best cocktails and aperitifs from around the world, making it pretty dangerous for travelers like us, because the different drinks either conjure up memories of past trips or invite you to be inspired for future trips. But the Americano here is listed as an Italian favorite, and when you’re in Rome…you know what to do.
4. The Hugo
Pavilions Rome, First Musica
I tried my first Hugo on the roof of The Pavilions Rome, First Musica overlooking the Tiber and with Rome stretching beyond it. This is a Spritz for those not yet accustomed to the Italian love of bitters. Made without Campari or Aperol, it’s clear and not bitter at all. Instead, The Hugo is mixed with prosecco and elderflower, soda and mint, making it refreshing and just slightly alcoholic and very cooling on a summer’s evening.
That said, some recipes add a dash of gin, while others add lime; I guess everyone tried to improve the old recipe in some way. It originated along the northern border of Italy, from South Tyrol, with influences from Austria, Switzerland and/or Germany, hence the lack of Campari and the Germanic name. If you want to ease into the different Italian aperitivos, this is a great start.
And here is another orange-colored candidate. It’s my husband’s favorite but tends to be a little too strong for me. Made with, of course, Campari, sweet vermouth and gin with a slice of orange and some ice, it is, unlike most of the other drinks mentioned here, made entirely of spirits and therefore quite potent. If diluted with a splash of sparkling water, often requested by traveling Americans in and around Milan where it comes from, it becomes The Americano (see above), and is no longer a proper Negroni.
That said, you can now also get Negroni Spritzes, locally called Negroni Sbagliato, and it uses all the same ingredients – sometimes minus the gin – as a regular Negroni, but is “diluted” with prosecco. So, again, quite potent. It tastes lighter, but in this case, the snacks that usually accompany an aperitivo in Italy are not only welcome, but also necessary for you to be able to walk in a straight line after indulging.
Have a Negroni Spritz on one of Piazza Navona’s many terraces – for example Il Grifone – because I have a feeling they diluted the Negroni somewhat, making it more drinkable and less strong. Some would call it sacrilege; I think it is quite useful.
6. Sparkling wines
Hassler Bistro at Palm Court
There is no prosecco to beat, not when it comes to fame around the world, nor when it comes to sales around the world. Italy is the leading producer of sparkling wine, and prosecco is the country’s best-known sparkling export. And who doesn’t like prosecco? Actually, I have to admit that I don’t like it. I don’t know what it is, maybe the process, that differs a little from other sparkling creations like champagne. I don’t really know, but I tend to avoid it.
Instead, I found a wonderful Italian sparkling wine at Hassler Bistro on Palm Court, which the sommelier suggested after I admitted that I didn’t like the country’s most famous sparkling wine. It was a Monte Rossa Coupé and I really liked it. And no, this is not an ad. Like prosecco, it comes from northern Italy, but I found it lighter, with less bubbles and perfect as an aperitif.
Pro tip: The sparkling wine is best enjoyed outside in the Palm Court’s beautiful surroundings, but step into Salone Eva, where the sumptuous armchairs and the odd tortoise that harken back to the previous owner’s love of the gentle reptiles are perfect for a stronger Negroni, which is very good suitable for cooler months.
Want to recreate your favorite aperitivo at home? Take a mixed class in Rome.