Milan is not the shabbiest of European cities but then Lombardy is not the poorest of European regions. Mix the stylish, affluent design culture, a general Italian fixation on deliciousness, and of course an innate love of socialising and you have the perfect setting for an aperitivi phenomenon.
But what does aperitivi mean in Milan? How well, or high heeled do you need to be to fit in with the locals, or at least not be too obvious an out of towner? Do you need to dress up to drink up, or just be sure you know your Campari from your Cynar and your Franciacorta from your prosecco? And how much, really, are you supposed to eat?
Let’s start with the drinks. The etymologists among you will know that aperitivo comes from the Latin ‘to open’, and convention says it’s a drink that stimulates the palate and digestive system before dining. Nadia Gallini of Le Marchesine vineyard in nearby Franciacorta, believes that aperitivi don’t just open the palate, but also the evening. For her, the social interaction that marks the end of the working day and the start of relaxation and dinner is important. And obviously, she theatrically stresses, one has to look the part. Unsurprisingly, her predinner drink of choice is a glass of top quality fizz. For that, read Franciacorta, the sparkling wine of the region that is widely considered to be Italy’s best bubbly.
If you want to stick to traditional aperitivi, the place to head for is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the Milanese institution of Il Camparino, previously known as Bar Zucca. This is where the charming and mustachioed Orlando Chiari oversees the annual consumption of 4200 bottles of Campari (the clue’s in the name).
Predictably, his opinion is that “a classic aperitivo is something bitter, and Campari was created here in Milano so it’s no surprise that it’s so popular.” Hard to disagree, given the quantity his customers get through, but then he does serve 2000 people on an average day, including many foreigners now that the bar is a permanent feature on most guidebooks’ must-visit lists.
Vittorio Cavaliere, a wine dealer from Puglia who frequently comes to Milan, is in the Nadia camp of choosing a glass of Franciacorta rather than something bitter and, perhaps counter-intuitively, applauds the move towards non-alcoholic aperitivi. This puts him at odds with Luca Pirola of the Cinc bar in the fashionable Brera area, who is adamant that an aperitivo has to be alcoholic: “If you’re not drinking alcohol then you’re not having an aperitivo. If you have a fruit juice then you’re just having a drink. You may well be drinking it before dinner, but it can’t be considered an aperitivo. Perhaps I am a bit Taliban on this?”
Perhaps, but if you’re reading this you’re probably of the same persuasion. As am I, so an alcoholic choice it is. As well as the chosen drink, there is, inevitably, the food. And it’s this that has created the much-talked about phenomenon of recent years. Vittorio explains: “Milano, like the rest of Italy, doesn’t just mean an aperitivo as something to drink, but also something to eat with it.” Indeed; and this is where it gets more complicated. Places such as Il Camparino and Cinc serve individual plates of carefully chosen nibbles to each table. Perhaps some crisps and olives along with something carby and bready. But there are many places that have taken the aperitivo food offer to abundant extremes and many now serve a buffet that can make our grandest wedding spread look miserly. Welcome to Milanese Happy Hour. A relatively recent addition to the predining scene which the Italians have readily adopted without feeling the need to translate – orario in cui le bevande sono scontate just doesn’t have the same ring.
Purists feel that this shouldn’t be considered aperitivi, believing that Happy Hour is a completely different offer and the two should under no circumstances be confused. The Happy Hour bounty is certainly popular with the younger crowds, not least because in many places you have to be energetic and with sharp elbows to have any chance of getting to the food. And then there’s the cost benefit: lots of older Milanese sympathise with young people starting out on their careers who are struggling to make ends meet and so understandably make the most of an evening which includes a couple of cocktails and endless plates of food for no more than 20 euros. (No room here to get into the advantages of eating while drinking, but I’ve yet to see any Italian youngsters collapse from too many sherbets in the early hours of the Milan morning).
So at times, the predining food offer has become less palate stimulation and more palate saturation, and Nadia explains that there is a word for when an aperitivo becomes dinner: apericena – a mix of aperitivi and cena, dinner. However, she emphasises, “it is for the young”.
But those who are, well, not as young as they perhaps like to imagine tend to mix the two up, having a classic low key aperitivo one night and then a noisy, frantic Happy Hour bruschetta battle the next. But then they’re probably so exhausted from the buffet fracas that they need a night’s respite.
Regardless, Chiari sees this tendency as a passing fashion, and even though his bar is well and truly part of the Milanese establishment (situated between the Duomo and La Scala, how could it not be?) he refuses to jump on the Happy Hour bandwagon, taking the view that “fashions don’t last very long and once what you do is out of fashion then so are you.”
But we are talking about the trendsetting capital of Italy and although it’s certain that the aperitivo ritual in Milan, as elsewhere in the country, is here to stay, perhaps the Happy Hour with its groaning buffet table may indeed prove to be a passing fad, well timed to coincide with economic troubles.
So, unless you’re young enough to get away with treating an overflowing table as your own dinner buffet, do as the more established and professional Milanese do: drink slowly, talk purposefully and even if you’re not wearing Sergio Rossi heels, walk as though you are.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Gin & It magazine.