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Aperitivo: 5 Italian cocktails perfect for summer

Aperitivo: 5 Italian cocktails perfect for summer

by Great Italian Chefs 12 July 2017

Make summer just that little bit more enjoyable with one of these refreshing, delicious and quintessentially Italian tipples.


You’re probably familiar with the term happy hour – a few hours in the early evening where drinks tend to be cheaper. In Italy, however, you have aperitivo, a time when friends get together for a glass of something refreshing and a little something to eat.

It might sound a lot like your standard cocktail hour, but it has some unique differences. Aperitivo time tends to fall between 7pm–9pm (Italians usually eat their dinner quite late), and while happy hour is more about getting customers through the doors with the allure of lower prices, aperitivo is a slightly more cultured affair, giving friends a chance to relax after a day at work. There’s more emphasis on the food offering, too – a good aperitivo will include little plates of focaccia or bruschetta, going a step beyond the standard olives, nuts or crisps you’d expect. These are usually free when you buy a drink (although some places tend to put up their prices during aperitivo hours, to balance the cost).

The custom originated in 1920s Milan and is much more common in the north of Italy than in the south. In true continental style, one drink and a small plate of food is usually nursed over the course of an hour, while small groups of friends catch up and talk. It’s the perfect excuse for people-watching and socialising without having to spend lots of money on a big meal or night out.

You can eat whatever you like during aperitivo, although most people obviously choose Italian dishes to serve. When it comes to the drinks, however, there are a few particular cocktails that tend to be mixed up for the occasion. Read on for the recipes and start planning an unashamedly Italian get-together.

1. Negroni

Arguably Italy’s most famous cocktail, the negroni oozes sophistication. It’s also incredibly simple to make – equal parts gin, Campari and red vermouth poured over ice with an orange garnish. The origin of the drink (as with most of Italy’s famous cocktails) is hazy, but most generally agree that it emerged in Florence around 1919. It certainly packs a punch – one is plenty for most people before dinner – but the sweet, bitter flavours combine into a wonderfully refreshing drink.

2. Hugo

Despite the simplicity of this cocktail it’s only been around since 2005, when South Tyrolean bartender Roland Gruber combined a shot of lemon balm syrup in a wine glass and topped it up with tonic water and Prosecco. The name was picked at random – he originally thought about calling it Otto but thought it sounded too German. By 2011, it had spread not only throughout northern Italy but also Austria and Germany, with elderflower syrup (or cordial) replacing the lemon balm, soda or sparkling mineral water replacing the tonic and fresh lime and mint added for garnish. If you’re a fan of mojitos, you’ll love a hugo.

3. Americano

The negroni might get all the attention in the world of Italian cocktails, but it would never have existed without the americano, invented in the 1860s. Combining Campari, sweet vermouth and soda water, it was created in Caffé Campari – a bar owned by Gaspare Campari (the creator of the famous liqueur) in honour of Primo Carnera, the first non-American boxer to win the world heavyweight championship in the USA (hence the name).

4. Peach bellini

If there’s one thing you simply have to sip on when visiting Venice, it’s a bellini. Created at the legendary Harry’s Bar in the city in 1945, it’s named after the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini thanks to the cocktail’s rosy pink colour (something which featured heavily in his art). The peach purée is traditionally made with white peaches, which are only in season in late summer and autumn, but you can find frozen purée year-round.

5. Aperol spritz

By far the most commonly ordered cocktail during any aperitivo, the Aperol spritz is to Italian summer what Pimm’s is to British summer. It’s incredibly refreshing, low in alcohol (unlike the more boisterous negroni) and easy to make – three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol and a splash of soda water. Some people add a shot of gin, too, but if you’re looking for a light drink to enjoy in the sun, stick with the original. It’s the pinnacle of 1950s Italian chic.

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