The tradition of aperitivo has been adopted by people across the world. But did you know that we have an 18th century Italian man to thank for it?
You may never have heard of him, but every time you enjoy an aperitivo – or you may know it by its French name of ‘aperitif’ which has also been adopted into the English language – you have Signor Carpano to raise a toast to.
The story of Signor Carpano
Antonio Benedetto Carpano was an Italian distiller who lived in Turin and was most famous for inventing vermouth in 1786.
Some people dispute whether or not he really did invent it, or whether that claim lies with someone else. But it’s certain that he was influential in popularising the drink by adding an infusion of aromatic herbs and spices to fortified white wine (sweetened with spirit) – and so a new way to pass the time before dinner was born.
The word aperitivo – or aperitivi in the plural – is not unique to Italy, of course, and the French have long enjoyed their aperitif, but we like to think we Italians do it better!
Thanks to Carpano, aperitivi – in particular vermouth – quickly became popular in Turin. By the 19th century it had been established as the drink enjoyed by the most fashionable trendsetters of the time, served in the most elegant cafes of the era.
Of course, it wasn’t long before its popularity spread throughout the country and people started to take pre-dinner drinks to whet the appetite and help prevent the indigestion or the other digestive troubles that can come with eating a big dinner.
You don’t have to like vermouth to enjoy an aperitivo though. As an important part of the Italian dining tradition, the very best type of aperitivo will be dry and have a bit of ‘bite’ or it might be quite bitter – this is no time for an overly-sweetened cocktail, although a glass of wine or prosecco is acceptable.
Why do we drink aperitivo?
The aim is to ‘open’ the stomach in preparation for the lavish dinner that will follow – and don’t forget that it’s not unusual for Italians to enjoy as many as four courses in the evening. So settling the stomach in preparation for a large evening meal is a sensible move!
But as well as opening up the stomach, this habit also ‘opens’ up the evening and distinguishes it from daytime, signifying the end of work and the start of private, family and friends, time.
So you see, there’s more to this custom than simply kickstarting the metabolism.
This is a time when people can finally start to unwind after a busy day at work, chat with friends in a local bar and leave the stresses and responsibilities of the day behind them. As such, it’s a bridge between daytime and evening, and the start of the post-work relation period.
The idea is beguilingly simple, friends gather together after work or before an evening meal to savour some small-plate light snacks and an appetite-stimulating drink – not to be confused with a digestivo (digestif) which is drunk after dinner to help aid digestion – or stop off solo in a friendly bar on the journey home from work.
The snacks aren’t supposed to replace the evening meal, but, along with the aperitivo, should act as an appetiser – salty snacks are good as are items that are easily picked up by hand (finger food).
A few slices of freshly-baked focaccia; some bruschetta topped with plump slices of red tomato; a bowl of olives or nuts, some crostini plus cheeses and meat, such as prosciutto, make for the perfect snacks.
And what are the best, most popular, drinks to go with these small plates of deliciousness?
Some pre-dinner drinks to try
Vermouth – a popular option and still made in much the same way as it was in Carpano’s day. Different producers stick to a similar recipe, with various botanicals, such as roots, seeds, herbs, spices and barks being added to fortified wine. You can buy it sweet or dry and in a wide range of different styles, such as white (bianco) or red (rosso).
Negroni – while it contains one part sweet vermouth, this popular cocktail also boasts one part Campari and one part gin, stirred, not shaken, then served over ice and garnished with a piece of orange peel. A great drink for summer.
Aperol Spritz – especially enjoyed as an aperitivo in Venice and the surrounding areas. this colourful orange drink is made with prosecco and Aperol in equal measure (or to taste) in an ice-filled glass, topped with a splash of water and served with a garnish (usually a slice of orange).
Prosecco – a crisp, light, sparkling wine is always a good choice before dinner and there is none better than prosecco, which comes from Italy’s north-eastern Veneto region and is thought to date back to the days of Ancient Rome.