Florence: the art of the aperitivo
Feature B&W image above used with special permission from the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive, American Girl in Italy, 1951, Copyright 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin.
Italian food culture is very seductive. It lures you with its rituals and once you are hooked, it’s hard to turn back. And why would you want to turn back anyway?
One of the rituals that we engaged in while travelling in Italy was the aperitivo and Florence in particular raised this ceremony to an art form.
What is aperitivo and why do they do it? As you already know, Italians eat their main meal at lunchtime (around 1-2 pm), to be followed by a late dinner at night (around 9:00 pm). For a bite to eat in between, whet their appetite for dinner, unwind after work and socialize (either or all of the above), they “do” the aperitivo, a perfect way to have a drink with a few small bites of food at a neighbourhood bar.
Generally aperitivo works this way: you buy the drinks and the the food is then “on the house”, meaning you don’t pay for it separately. The food is either set out on the bar counter or served at the table on small plates. The price is different if you sit at the table so don’t order at the counter and then sit down, that’s a no-no. At other places you buy both drinks and food. These appetizers do not consist of a few pretzels and potato chips, nothing like that. Mostly, they are good Italian style appetite-enhancing foods ranging from olives and pickled delicacies to spreads, little sandwiches and more.
Aperitivo is not meant to replace dinner and gobbling down everything is sight would surely cast you as brutta figura in their eyes, so pace yourself to fit in. If you are Italian, you take your aperitivo standing at the bar. Tourists mostly sit down, that’s my observation, probably tired from a day of walking all over town sightseeing. Aperitivo time is around 7-9 pm though I have seen people enjoying it earlier in the day. These may have been tourists, but I don’t think there is law against it.
Other cultures have similar rituals, notably the tapas in Spain, but tapas are more substantial and are often indulged in instead of dinner. Not so in Italy, where dinner is sacred and the aperitivo is a precursor intended to stimulate your appetite. The “let’s meet for drinks” would roughly translate in Italian to Facciamocci un aperitivo but it may be good to mention here that Italian do not over drink and do not drink without food. You do not go for an aperitivo to get a “buzz” or worse. It is intended as a healthy way to manage your digestivo, the all important concept behind the Italian food rituals.
Aperitivo tends to be more prevalent the further north you go. Milanese indulge in it to a high degree and so do the Venetians with their cicchetti (post to come). Romans participate as well but perhaps because of the compact and charming layout of Florence, it was most noticeable there.
Where to go for an aperitivo in Florence? here are some suggestions.
Via della spada 10/r, Florence
In Florence the most famous aperitivo is the Negroni, first made at Cafe Giacosa, a small bar in the old part of town. The story goes that it was invented in 1919 when Count Negroni asked the bartender at the cafe to strengthen his drink by adding Gin rather than soda to his favourite Americano cocktail. The bartender then garnished it with orange rather than usual lemon to distinguish it from the regular drink. The Count was so pleased with his new cocktail that eventually the Negroni family founded the Negroni distilleries and the rest is history. The Cafe Giacosa is still in operation, having been rescued from closure by the Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli and the Negroni is served there, both in the antico and a more modern version . We participated in the Aperitivo ritual here on a number of evenings, sitting with our drinks and watching the going ons. Fascinating.
To make a Negroni mix equal parts (1 oz or 2 tablespoons per serving) of Gin, Campari and sweet Vermouth, add a twist of orange and if you’d like it sparkly, a splash of chilled prosecco. Serve on ice in straight or martini glass. Martini glass would be best without the ice and prosecco.
The classic aperitivo – Aperol spritz
Another aperitivo that is popular all over was an orange coloured drink that turned out to be an Aperol Spritz, refreshing to the palate and pretty in the glass. The spritz is made with Prosecco, Aperol and soda, poured over ice and garnished with a slice of orange. It looks attractive served in a large, stemmed wine glass. Aperol is an Italian liqueur with balanced bitter to sweet flavour and their website offers a recipe for an Aperol Spritz as follows:
3 parts Cinzano Prosecco
2 parts Aperol
A splash of soda.
Start by adding ice into the glass, then pour in the prosecco, the Aperol and then a splash of soda. Top with the slice of orange. This way of preparing it prevents the Aperol from settling at the bottom of the glass.
Of course you can have a glass of wine or a prosecco for your aperitivo, that’s quite acceptable.
Via Tornabuoni 64/r, Florence
Around the corner from Cafe Giacosa on Via Tornabuoni next to Palazzo Tornabuoni there is a small but chic bar, Procacci, owned by the Antinori family. This is another historic cafe that opened its doors for the first time in 1885 and became renowned for truffle based products. This is essentially a wine bar where you can have a glass of some wonderful wines (mostly, but not only Antinori) together with their famous truffle sandwiches (you pay for the sandwiches). It’s a stylish, sophisticated wine bar, not to be missed on of the most beautiful high end shopping streets of Florence.
Via de’ Tornabuoni 16, Florence
Next door at the stylish restaurant Obica inside the grand Palazzo Tornabuoni you can have aperitivo Obica daily at 18:30 with offering of fresh mozzarella cheese (their specialty) and other small tastings. We loved Obica and went back several times for pizza, mozzarella tastings and dinners. I also bought their cookbook. They have a refreshing selection of aperitivo including La dolce Vita, made with vodka, honey and prosecco, and Aperol Spring made with Aperol, peach, lemon juice and vanilla. They also offer martini and a variety of wines.
One evening we had tickets for an opera performance at the Anglican Church in Florence. It didn’t leave us time for a full dinner so for a different aperitivo experience we went to Sesto restaurant at the top of the Westin Hotel Excelsior by the Arno river not far from our apartment near the Ponte Vecchio. Sesto restaurant on the top floor offers a 360 degrees view of Florence’s skyline and is a lovely place for an elegant lunch, dinner or aperitivo. Their aperitivo however is more substantial and I believe may be intended to take the place of dinner. The price was 18 Euros for the drink but the food was included. It was a lovely way to spend the first part of the evening before the concert.
One place my “list” to try that I didn’t get to is the Grand Hotel Baglioni, one of the premier hotels in Florence. They have a rooftop American bar with gorgeous views over the city but I believe it is only open in season. Next time.
Another good place for aperitivo is the historic Cafe Gilli (1733) in Piazza della Republica. The cafe was built in the belle epoque style with elegant chandeliers, arches and an impressive green marble bar counter. In the mornings the place is packed with locals lined up for morning coffee which they drink standing up at the bar and in early evening it is crowded with locals having their aperitivo. As you can see in the images, your four legged friends are welcome as well. Gilli is the site of the famous 1951 image An American Girl in Italy, taken by phtotojournalist Ruth Orkin , of a girl passing in front of the cafe to the admiring glares of Italian men lounging around. The photograph (see feature image) was part of a series of images called “don’t be afraid to travel alone”, about what they encountered in Europe as young women travelling in Europe post WWII. Feature image in B&W used with special permission from the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive, American Girl in Italy, 1951Copyright 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin.
Aperitivo is one of the most fun Italian food rituals and you can experience it in settings that are casual and local or high end and sophisticated. Let your instincts guide you, often they lead you to the best experiences.