Order a glass of wine in Italy and you never drink alone. A little something to eat always turns up on the bar or cafe table.
In the past, what the waiter brought was usually bizarrely un-Italian, whether potato chips or peanuts, but on this trip it bordered on a smorgasbord. From the first bar on, every drink was accompanied by a heaping plate of savory sensations: puff pastries filled with pesto or sausage; focaccia laced with olives or anchovies; grissini wrapped in prosciutto or soppressata; crisp squares of risotto with sage or frittata with peppers; olives and chunks of cheese and slices of salami. Always, the only charge was for the wine.
Italians call the concept aperitivo, which is simply translated as “aperitif.” But these days it is much more than a drink, almost like tapas. As a euro-generation resident of Turin said, a word that used to mean “let’s go have a drink before dinner, to perk up our appetites” now means “let’s go drink and eat and maybe skip dinner altogether.”
Sociologists can debate whether the new expanded aperitivo is good or bad in a country where meals have always started with antipasto and ended five courses later, and whether it is an outgrowth of more work and less money (not to mention marriage) among the young. All I know is that every encounter made me rethink what to serve before dinner, or even instead of dinner, back home.
My friend Diego Orlando, a photographer who lives east of here in Veneto, put it best: “With aperitivo, every region, house, bar, town, year has something to serve you. Could be salami, could be cheese, could be something more complicated, but the idea is, ‘You’re drinking with me, I’ll find something in my house to eat, but I don’t know what I have, we’ll see.’ So everything easy to eat is used to serve with wine before lunch or dinner.”
Easy to eat also means easy to fix. With the right food on hand -- salami, cheese, olives, bread -- aperitivo is just a slice away.
My new inspirations came constantly. At a cafe on a piazza in Asti, a town about an hour southeast of Turin, a single glass of wine arrived with four tiny panini, each filled with a different cured meat (prosciutto, two different salami, sausage), the little pile crowned with a slice of hard-cooked egg drizzled with olive oil and dusted with oregano. On another rainy night, two glasses of wine at a coffee bar and pasticceria here were served with six tramezzini -- triangular mini-sandwiches on white bread with red caviar, prosciutto, egg and more -- and a second plate of tiny puff pastry savories with anchovies and pesto. And on our last night we decided we didn’t need dinner after sharing what a wine bar called Rosso Rubino Enoteca served with our two glasses: a small plate piled high with meat wrapped around grissini, different olives, mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, salami and little squares of frittata.
Always, the food was meant to absorb alcohol, very delicately. Most of it is straight out of the Italian larder: cured meats, cheeses, olives, breadsticks. But just as often it is whipped up in the kitchen, with savory tidbits such as leftover risotto fried into crisp squares or roasted peppers stuffed with tuna mousse.
Occasionally aperitivo resembles a good old-fashioned American happy hour with unlimited buffet, which opens up more main-course possibilities. At Free Volo, a sidewalk cafe here, we heaped plates with bocconcini, prosciutto, salami, olives, grissini, even pasta salad with tomatoes and basil (yes, in Italy, and no, no more exciting than it ever is).
Beyond memories, what I took away from aperitivo was new inspiration for hors d’oeuvres. It had never occurred to me to serve tonnato sauce, the creamy tuna-anchovy-caper spread traditionally spooned over poached veal, with drinks. But after watching so many young Italians scoop it up on grissini and spread it onto bread, I think it will be a staple in my wine go-with file.
Similarly, I had never thought of deep-frying an olive, but after encountering one stuffed with meat in a crunchy breading, I came home with a new reason to improve on perfection.
Instead of braised pork and veal enriched with prosciutto, this version just uses soppressata minced with Fontina.
And I had never thought of turning risotto into cocktail food, but it makes sense considering the real thing is always so much better fried up the next day.
(Somehow, making it just to turn it into something else guarantees you will produce the best risotto you ever attempted.) The little crispy squares go well with any wine or with other drinks.
I also associate puff pastry more with France and normally avoid it at all costs, having been humiliated by it in restaurant school. But it seemed to be as essential as salumi in Italy and, luckily, is now available from good commercial producers in this country and absurdly easy to use for aperitivo. You can fold it over anything savory: pesto, anchoiade, plain anchovies, tomatoes, roasted mushrooms.
Then there is the grissini factor. These anorectic breadsticks are known as the pride of Turin, but they are heavily exported and work even better as a vehicle for aperitivo snacks than they do as an alternative to bread. Bars in Italy wrap prosciutto or soppressata around them, or just set them out with cheese to munch on.
And cheese may be the most surprising, and satisfying, solid food for aperitivo. Traditionally eaten at the end of a meal, it almost works better with alcohol before dinner.
A tangy Fontina or pungent Parmigiano-Reggiano or especially a salty-wet mozzarella is the best appetite stimulant with wine for a cocktail hour that extends so far into dinner it can supplant it.
Americans, of course, have thought this for years.
Just a slice away
AS appealing as it is to go out for aperitivo, it’s equally satisfying to do it yourself. All you need is a well-stocked larder. Here are a few Italian staples to keep on hand:
* Olives of every stripe and shape and flavor. Serve them plain or fried.
* Grissini or other breadsticks. Good all by themselves and even better enrobed in prosciutto or soppressata.
* Cured salami or other dry sausage (including Spanish chorizo). Just slice and serve, or layer into bread or onto focaccia.
* Marinated artichoke hearts. Simply slice them up and layer them on crostini or sliced baguette, or puree them with a little mayonnaise and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to spread on crostini or use as a dip with breadsticks.
* Good canned tuna, ideally from Italy. The foundation of tonnato sauce or a mousse to wrap in roasted peppers.
* Roasted red peppers. See above, or puree with toasted almonds or walnuts and a little garlic to serve as a spread or dip.
* Canned chickpeas. Puree them with garlic and olive oil and you may not have hummus but you do have something that goes very well with wine.
* Anchovies. Lay them onto bread, mash them into a paste to spread or bake them in puff pastry or on focaccia.
* Capers. Puree them with tuna for tonnato sauce, or just use them as a garnish.