If we genuflect to the altar of aperitivo, forgive us, but know that its roots are ancient and venerable.
In fact, the first mention of cocktails meant to stoke the appetite is roughly 1,600 years old. That’s when Saint Diadachos warned his flock in Northern Greece—then part of the Eastern Roman Empire—about the seductive danger of mixed drinks before a feast.
“People who wish to discipline the sexual organs should avoid drinking those artificial concoctions which are called ‘aperitifs’—presumably because they open a way to the stomach for the vast meal which is to follow,” Diadochos said, according to the common translation. “Not only are they harmful to our bodies, but their fraudulent and artificial character greatly offends the conscience wherein God dwells. For what does wine lack that we should sap its healthy vigour by adulterating it with a variety of condiments?”
For that matter, what does foamy, fresh, natural beer lack, that we ought to drink Aperol spritz instead? Típota. Nienta. Nada. Zilch.
Aperitivo, for the uninitiated, is a long-running Italian tradition of enjoying a drink or two with a snack in the early evening. This often happens in the hours after work, but before a dinner that often doesn’t happen until 9 p.m. or later. The Latin verb is aperire, or “to open.” The idea is not to satisfy the appetite, but to open it, to stimulate it. That means a couple of things: The snack should be smallish, and the drink should be the sort that gets the belly rumbling.
The typical thing to sip with the snack would be a mixed drink (such as a Negroni or spritz) with bitter spirits like Campari or Aperol. (As fellow beer enthusiasts, you have our permission to snicker and condescend when cocktail types refer to something as “bitter.”) A sparkling white wine also works.
However, while acknowledging that it’s not traditional, we here at DRAFT can’t help but think of several beers that do this job better than any cocktail or wine. If you want something bitter, how about a glass of dry, bitter, aromatic, sparkling IPA? Or if you really want to stoke the appetite and get the belly rumbling for more, how about something acidic, like a Berliner weisse or a gueuze?
Then there is the fact that a beer is usually going to pair far better with the sorts of snacks that tend to appear for aperitivo. Think salumi—Italian cold cuts—sharp, dry cheeses like Pecorino or Parmigiana Reggiano, maybe some olives, and crusty bread. Beer has the bubbles like sparkling wine, but it more deftly handles the salt and the fat—and usually for less money, too.
Out of curiosity, we ran our heresy past Katie Parla, a Rome-based food writer and co-author of Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City. So, how about beer with aperitivo?
“Totally works for me,” Parla said. “And if you go to any of the Italian craft-beer-oriented places, you’ll find that they do have a ton of people rush the place at 6:30, 7 o’clock. And that totally works for me.”
What to drink with the snack, then? Parla said that depends on a lot of things, “often my mood. I work all day, so sometimes I just want to crush a super-intense APA, and other times meeting up with friends I want to try something different. … But what I like to do is let the bartender guide, unless there’s some sort of special limited edition thing I want to try. In which case I’ll pick my food based on what’s available.”
Some young Italians might eat enough at an aperitivo buffet to preclude spending money on dinner, but this is considered uncouth … even if we Americans can relate.
In America, “appetizer” means roughly the same thing as aperitivo, except that our snacks are not so light and we treat the word as kind of a joke. When is the last time an “appetizer” actually stimulated your appetite? Instead we eat them instead of a main course when we have less appetite, or else we order them before the main when our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. Note that “doggie bag” has no Italian translation.
Likewise, our distinctly American happy hour tradition is similar to aperitivo, except that our snacks tend to be heavy, and if they’re cheap—ah, I’m just old enough remember the days of 10-cent wings—they make a beautiful dinner substitute for students and young working types.
All of these traditions have their place, but those of us who love to eat and drink are bound to be attracted to anything that will “open a way to the stomach for the vast meal which is to follow,” as the Diadachos put it. As for disciplining our sexual organs, well, maybe saints ought to mind their own damned business.