Aperitivo is simply what it says it is, an aperitif. An aperitif is meant to open the stomach before dinner, and usually consists of an (not necessarily) alcoholic beverage and some light refreshments. Whatever you do, do NOT equate Italian aperitivo with happy hour; not only is it offensive to them, it is inherently wrong.
However, in Northern Italy, they have branded their own version of this, and it is now a fashionable culture called aperitivo. Though it can now be found throughout Italy, it is still mostly common throughout the northern portion of the country. When I went with my best friends on my Great Northern Italy Adventure, I got to experience this tradition firsthand on several occasions.
There is a lighthearted feud between the cities of Turin (Torino) and Milan over which is the home and capital of the aperitivo. Both places claim the title, and you can expect many options for this quintessential northern Italian tradition in either city, and in the entire northern portion of the country, actually.
The aperitivo culture in northern Italy goes like so. On the weekdays after work hours, sometimes one might want to have a drink. It is too late to drive all the way home first to change and go back out, so folks go out and grab a cocktail (usually). The price of these aperitivo cocktails may be higher in price than the establishment’s normal prices, but the aperitivo cost includes an assortment of foods to go along with the drink. At every place that serves aperitivo, the price will include one drink and unlimited access to the foods put out, buffet-style.
These photos are from an aperitivo we had at Setai Colonial Cafe in Zona Colonne, San Lorenzo, Milan.
Aperitivo can vary in price, food assortment, and drink selection, depending on the restaurants. Some are quite inexpensive, say €3 to €5, but with well drinks and simple snacks for consumption. Others can be quite lavish, at €15 or more, and serve top shelf liquor and hot dinner items.
Though aperitivo may have started out as an aperitif-type culture, northern Italians have transformed it into their own brand. It is the consensus that the food eaten at aperitivo will also be dinner; both patrons and staff are aware of this and okay with it.
Popular drinks during aperitivo are wine and cocktails made with wine-based vermouth or bitter liqueurs, such as Aperol or Campari. General aperitivo times are usually from 7 to 10 pm, though there are sometimes lunchtime and mid-afternoon versions, as well.