In the late 1860s Milan was steadily affirming its position as a power player in the recently unified country of Italy. Scores of people from the countryside were flocking to city to find wealth in this industrial paradise. But as the nation unfolded, another unification was also at work in Milan, that of the people themselves, and the man responsible for this was a farmer’s son named Gaspare Campari. After beginning work at the Bass Bar in Torino aged 14, and after much observation of his patrons, he became fascinated by people’s drinking habits.
After noticing how many alcoholic aperitifs spoiled one’s appetite prior to eating, Campari began mixing the drinks for people to enjoy before their evening meal. His choice of location, in the shadow of Milan’s Duomo, was favoured by the Milanese intelligentsia and Campari’s bitter, became their drink of choice. This peculiar crimson coloured cocktail was sour in taste and designed to stimulate the appetite. His recipe contained more than 60 natural herbs, spices barks and fruit peels and is still the Campari company’s treasured secret today.
Until the 1920s Italians drank their pre-dinner tipple with soda water, until one summer day when Count Camilio Negroni, an American visiting Florence, asked for his with gin instead. The Negroni was born. As the 20th century progressed, so did the sophistication of the aperitivo. Small snacks were added to the tables where people sipped and different mixers were added to the Campari such as prosecco and fruit juices.
h Club > Diane Bar at the Sheraton, Milan
Milan’s Bar Basso in the 1980s: Already an established place for a light aperitivo, but one evening the rushed barman reaches for the prosecco instead of the gin when mixing a Negroni. What emerged was the Negroni sbagliato or ‘mistaken’ Negroni. It was this decidedly delectable mistake and that offered this perfect introduction to the true ‘satanic, delicious hell broth’ that makes a real Negroni (thanks for that one, Anthony Bourdain).
If any other country had dreamed up these cocktails, the concept of aperitivo would have been left as is. But this is Italy, and food matters. After Bar Basso’s Sbagliato took-off Milanese bars started preparing more and more snacks to accompany the drinks. Over the last twenty years or so, the concept has become so competitive and so beloved that the aperitivo is considered an institution in Milan, part of the city’s identity and social culture.
The premise is simple, you buy one drink, alcoholic or otherwise and you are thereby given licence to eat as much of the bar food as you like. This can range from measly bowls of olives, nuts and crisps to full out buffets of gourmet goodness. The latter is more common in Milan and most people plan their evenings around it.
So what do you need to know when you go for aperitivo?
Negroni: Deep-blood orange in colour, tangy, bitter and devastatingly Italian. The mix is simple, Campari, gin and red vermouth. This is perfect refreshing drink after a long day. Real Negronis are hardcore, pushing the 25%vol. you’ll need to partake in the food offered if you want to attempt more than two.
Negroni sbagliato: Bar Basso does the only one worth drinking, served in its own glass, The Colossus, a scenic triangular wine glass, with huge cubes of ice. The aforementioned ‘mistake’ swaps the gin for prosecco, and when made correctly is better than the original.
From top left: Zucca Rabarbaro, Negroni Sbagliato, Negroni and Spritz © Alessandra Ceriani
Aperol Spritz: The Negroni may be the beginning of the aperitivo culture in Milan, but today the locals mainly drink a much lighter form. ‘Spritz’ is divine mixture of prosecco, Aperol, sparkling water and slices of fresh orange. Although is looks and smells a lot like Campari, Aperol has a much lower alcohol content and is a lot sweeter to taste. This drink is the star of the Milanese cocktail scene, and sampling one is the only way to say you’ve experienced aperitivo properly.
Zucca Rabarbaro: Another aperitif not to be missed, although not so well-known, is featured at the Camparini Bar, previously the Zucca Bar near the Duomo. Its base is rhubarb, which gives the liqueur a delicate, bittersweet taste.
You’ve taken a seat in the sunshine, the waiter has left your drinks, and a bill charging the same amount for the Negroni and the Coca-Cola. Now the real experience begins. The spread in the bars in Milan are legendary, with everything from fresh salads, antipasti, pasta, meats and dishes from other countries, as well as desserts on offer. There are also a selection of vegan and vegetarian only aperitivi and always these options at the other bars.
If you’re visiting Italy, you know that a large amount of your time will be spent eating. Italians are formal when it comes to their eating habits, so although they’ll accept most minor slips it’s important to note the biggest ‘bad impression’ makers. Firstly, never eat your aperitivo standing-up. It doesn’t matter how great the parmigiana looks, take your plate to a table and sit down.
Camparini Bar in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele ii © Campari
Aperitivo is for socialising; it’s not dinner, so be wary of taking more than three plates of food. One of the easiest ways to stand out as foreigner is to sit at a prime table with one drink but going up and down to the buffet. Although the food is served in small portions, never pick at it before you sit down, and never eat with your hands: Italians strongly believe that food should be savoured and respected Bar staff will never ask you to leave a table, but just be aware of when you’ve been there long enough to warrant a second drink.