Regular old happy hour is so 10 minuti fa. Today, the hottest trend in cocktail parties is aperitivo, also known as “Italian cocktail hour”. Featuring pre-dinner drinks and nibbles native to Italy, aperitivo is the cornerstone of la dolce vita, which has become a way of life for gracious hostess, 2018 Salonniere 100 honoree, and Today show entertaining expert Annette Joseph. A resident of both the U.S. and Italy, Annette reveals the secrets to this popular Italian tradition in her just-published tome, Cocktail Italiano: The Definitive Guide to Aperitivo. Equal parts cookbook, guidebook, and travelogue, Cocktail Italiano offers Annette’s helpful tips and delicious recipes for hosting aperitivi just as the locals do in Santa Margherita, Portofino, and 10 other towns on the Italian Riviera. Read on, miei amici, the Riviera, herb-marinated olives, and a Red Kiss await you. Cin cin!
You’ve described yourself as “obsessed with the culture, food, cocktails, and camaraderie of aperitivo“. Why is that?
I love the ritual—the colors, the fashions, and the energy. I am also innately a scene-watcher and people-watcher and find the art of conversation and storytelling fascinating. And of course, I love a good Italian cocktail, especially if it involves Campari.
How does the Italian aperitivo differ from the American cocktail hour?
Italian aperitivo is every day and everywhere—whether at a fancy hotel or the local bar. Unlike the American cocktail hour, aperitivo is a true ritual. Before dinner, everyone—from royals and socialites to the lady who waits on you at the grocery store—will stop what they’re doing to gather with family and friends and partake in this delightful tradition. For Italians, it’s part of everyday life.
How important is food to aperitivo?
Extremely important. In Italy, eating while drinking is a must, so everyone enjoys nibbles with their cocktails.
What comprises a classic aperitivo menu?
Negronis and Aperol spritzes are very popular these days. Of course, it’s also nice to offer glasses of chilled prosecco. In terms of food, 99 percent of the time, potato chips—whether they’re store-bought in bulk, kettle chips, or homemade—are served. Other popular nibbles are focaccia, small sandwiches, pizza, olives, and nuts.
What items should a party host keep on hand to stay aperitivo-ready?
Aperol, vermouth, Campari, gin, and the odd Amaro are a good start. I would also suggest having club soda, tonic water, limes, lemons, oranges, bitters, a cocktail shaker, and a stirrer for mixing cocktails. For food, you’ll need potato chips, of course. I also like to keep plenty of olives, meats, and cheeses on hand so I can construct a killer charcuterie platter. And of course pretty cocktail glasses and colorful cocktail napkins—whether paper or fabric. I especially love vintage napkins.
How can those who aren’t seaside add a touch of the Riviera to their aperitivo?
A bright, well-prepared cocktail and a lovely Italian nibble are the perfect primer for the armchair traveler. Music helps, too. But of course the most important element of your aperitivo at home is the group of friends you’ve invited to enjoy it with you.
You mention music. What’s the perfect aperitivo playlist?
I love Spotify because you can find vintage Italian songs. I also love the songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s featuring Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. My favorite song for aperitivo is Mambo Italiano. There’s also an updated Mambo Italiano remix that’s super fun. Or you can play contemporary Italian hits. Nowadays it’s easy to find just the right Italian playlist.
What is the best way to dress for aperitivo?
Keep it casual: a summery sundress or colorful shirt are traditional for aperitivo. Think beachy and flowy.
What are the best flowers to use to grace an aperitivo spread?
Flowers are not really important. I suggest palm fronds and sea shells to create a beachy vibe.
What do you like to use for serving aperitivo cocktails and food?
I love vintage cocktail glasses, particularly highballs and coupes. I own hundreds of them here in the U.S. and in Italy. For the nibbles, I use small dishes—single-serving plates and trays—and appetizer forks and spoons.
Is there an ideal number of guests to invite for aperitivo?
It depends on if you want to host an intimate gathering or an epic cocktail party. Aperitivo is for crowds or a few close friends.
If you could invite anyone, living or dead, to join you for aperitivo, who would it be?
Dolce and Gabbana—they seem super fun; Wes Anderson, because he’s my favorite; Bill Cunningham; Linda Fargo (because I grew up with her and would love to catch up with her by the seaside); Tina Fey; Truman Capote; and Lenny Kravitz.
All of the places in your book look fabulous, but if you had to choose one must-visit place, what would it be and why?
That’s tough, but I think I’d choose Portofino, because it’s such an iconic place to grab apero.
Who are the legendary hosts and guests of aperitivo that you admire?
Every noteworthy hostess has hosted aperitivo, and every movie star—from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to Brigitte Bardot, Federico Fellini, and Marcello Mastroianni—has enjoyed aperitivo in the Riviera at one point or another. Alassio, a seaside town where I lived for years, was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway.
What do Italians like to talk about while enjoying aperitivo?
I hate to generalize, but Italians are great at small talk! Favorite topics on the Riviera include the weather, family, children, and travel. They also like to tell jokes. They rarely—almost never—talk about work.
What restaurants in America do a nice job of re-creating the aperitivo experience:
Aperitivo is easy to find in New York and Los Angeles. In New York, I like Eataly and Tarallucci e Vino. In L.A., I like Fig and Olive on Melrose Place, The Ace Hotel, DTLA, Bestia, and Terroni. In Atlanta, where I live, Storico Fresco does a great job.
One final question: Negroni or Aperol Spritz?
Negroni, 100 percent.
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The six secrets of Italian party hosts
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Photos: Skyhorse Publishing