I thought I was pretty hip to Italian culture. Well, no actually I knew I was not that hip, but I did think I knew about things like which delicious beverages to drink at which times throughout the day. Early morning cappuccino- check; after lunch caffe- got it; pre-dinner aperitivo- yes; red wine with dinner- of course. But then I heard the term apericena, and my world was thrown into a bit of a spiral. Was this yet another beverage, and when would I fit it into my day?
I’ve always loved the concept of the aperitivo. Most people think of it as a pre-dinner drink, but in fact it is more accurate to say it is an event. It’s sort of like what we call “happy hour,” but seems a bit more civilized in its purpose and execution. People gather together in bars after work and socialize while sipping cocktails and enjoying a light buffet or small individual plate, all of which you get at a fixed cost of around €10. The idea is to prepare the palate for dinner, as Italians believe that one must eat to fully engage the appetite. “Aperto” in Italian means open, to begin. It is the signal to yourself that dinner is coming soon. It is most decidedly not a time to eat your fill from the buffet, or drink the night away and forget about your dinner plans. It is one drink and some nibbles, just the start of your evening.
This magical moment is also the only time of day when Italians drink cocktails. Often an aperitivo consists of a sparkling, bitter or dry drink like Prosecco with Campari or Aperol, or maybe a beer or dry white wine. It is felt that a too-sweet drink doesn’t properly stimulate your appetite for dinner. Dinnertime is accompanied by wine, and is an entirely separate and later event. In fact, many Italians, especially those living in smaller towns, will go to the local bar to meet friends for an aperitivo before heading home to cook dinner. If you’re not heading home but not planning to stay for dinner at the bar serving your aperitivo, it’s bad form to linger into dinnertime. At around 8 or 9pm, aperitivo is over and it’s time to move on. You’ll know because the buffet will be swiftly put away and the bartender may shoot some side eye in your direction.
The type of food you can expect with an aperitivo varies widely. It may be a buffet of cold pasta salads, couscous, chicken wings, vegetables and other finger foods. It may be a delicious plate of meats and cheeses. Or it could simply be peanuts and olives. It hardly matters. The important thing is that this is a time to gather with friends and family, a ritual that signals to your mind and body that the work day is over and a relaxing dinner is forthcoming.
This brings me to my original question- If what I’ve just described is the aperitivo, what is the apericena? We know that “aperi” refers to the opening of the palate and preparation for your next meal. The word “cena” means dinner, so is an apericena a hybrid of the pre-dinner ritual and dinner itself? This was the question on my mind when I stepped to my computer the other night, ready to conduct some serious research.
As it turns out, the words are used somewhat interchangeably. But apericena can imply a heartier buffet. For example, you may plan a get together with a group of friends to celebrate a birthday or other occasion more important than just the end of the workday, at a place that serves a generous apericena, and then skip the big dinner.
Whatever you call it, here are a few places I recommend you try the next time you’re in Florence and it’s time to wake up your palate:
Fuori Porta– This is actually a wine bar, for those of us who would rather have a nice dry white wine than a bitter cocktail. Their food is as outstanding as their wine selection, and they offer their best meats and cheeses during aperitivo.
Le Volpi e l’Uva– This is also a wine bar (I guess I’m in a wine mood today). It’s fun to sit in their outside terrace (you have to reserve ahead during summer) and sip one of their lovely wines while they bring generous plates of meats and cheeses.
Sweet Wine Bar– This is a fantastic restaurant just outside of the center of town, but so worth the cab fare. I have not been there for an aperitivo but have heard they offer a really nice buffet.
Il Continentale rooftop bar- Right in the heart of Florence, this is a rooftop bar that really nails it with its perfect views and ambiance.
Fusion bar– Just down the road from Il Continentale but at street level is this Peruvian/Japanese fusion restaurant that serves delicious sushi in a bento box with your aperitivo.
So, to sum up what we’ve learned here: There is only one appropriate answer to the question aperitivo or apericena? Yes, please.