Travel and Dining

Milan's Aperitivo Hour

Antipasto variety on the buffet table. (Photo: Steven Miric/Getty Images)

Dipping and nibbling, Italian style

MILAN, Italy — In a kingdom where fashion is king and wispy models its princesses, the all-you-can-eat buffet is the last kind of dining experience you’d expect to find. Yet the two coexist in blissful harmony, for Milan is the home of the aperitivo—a tradition that raises the buffet to a new level.

Aperitivo, rich uncle of happy hour, is the beloved Milanese tradition of pre-dinner drinks accompanied by complimentary stuzzichini, or appetizers. Derived from the Latin aperitivus, to open, aperitivo is meant to stimulate the appetite and tease the taste buds, previewing the delights of dinner. Spreads can range from modest olives, cheeses and potato chips to awe-inspiring pastas, pizza, bruschetta, meats, sautéed vegetables and fruit salads. Drinks come with unlimited admission to the food bar. The aperitivo starts at 6 or 7 p.m., and lasts until 9. As little as one drink—alcoholic or not—can be your ticket to the best-kept secret in Italy.

Although you can easily make a free dinner of aperitivo, the real challenge is to learn to act like the Milanese, who delicately graze through the line, giving the food the respect it deserves.

As an American student in Milan, amazed by the delicious food and blindsided by the dismal exchange rate, I was not so sophisticated. My fellow expats and I would dash to the buffet table as soon as the waitress walked away with our drink order, and return with our hands guarding our heaps of food, poised to catch the last piece of focaccia from falling.

The Milanese, in their crisp and stylish work attire, would watch us with amusement as they nibbled the vegetables and cheeses.

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Of course, they’ve had time to perfect their technique. Aperitivo is a well-established Italian tradition, particularly in the north. By the 1920s Milan was known as “the capital of aperitivo.” Bargoers sipped Campari or similar bitters, accompanied by olives or nuts. In subsequent years both the food and drink selection expanded, though aperitif liquors—bitters, prosecco, martinis and white wine—are still the most popular choices. Most popular is the Negroni (1 part gin, 1 part Campari, 1 part sweet Vermouth).

But the social essence of aperitivo has stayed pretty much the same.

“Aperitivo offers a moment of relaxation at the end of a day at work, where you can allow yourself the pleasure of conversation paired with the pleasure of good food,” said Grazia Mannozzi, author and professor at the University of Insubria, near Milan. “It is especially successful due to the pleasant climate of our country, and the Italian passion for socializing.” Mannozzi goes to aperitivo about once a week, but says she knows of many people who go far more frequently (“especially those without children to make dinner for!” she added).

“It’s certainly a traditional part of the workday (or school day) for lots of Milanese, both young and old,” said Jenna Walker, a young Italian professional who moved to Milan after studying in the United States. “It’s a great way to wind down at the end of the day, on the way home from university or work, either with colleagues or to catch up with friends you haven’t seen in a while.”

Aperitivo has spread throughout Italy, and has cousins in Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany. But Milan won’t relinquish its title without a fight.

Where to Graze

Head to Brera, the artsy, bohemian district, where you’ll see the effortlessly hip in colorful scarves lingering over their white wine in patio cafés decorated with climbing ivy.

Or, for the most elaborate spreads, try Milan’s Venice-inspired Navigli district, where the canals—designed by Leonardo da Vinci in 1842 to import wine, food and the marble to build Milan’s Duomo—still wind along the narrow streets. Step into one of the houseboats docked in the canals, where aperitivo is often accompanied by live music. Most Navigli hot spots morph into dance clubs later in the evening.

For the classic aperitivo experience, visit one of the more expensive bars around the Piazza Duomo. (Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better or more food.) Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini used to hang out at Zucca in Galleria after performances at La Scala next door. Soak up the historical ambiance as you gaze at the Duomo’s magnificent spires, listening to the clicks of heels echoing along the marble floors as the shoppers pass by with their new Gucci and Prada treasures.

Where to Enjoy Aperitivo in Milan

Bar Tender
Piazza Morbegno (intersection of Via Varanini and Via Venini)
Prompt, friendly service, with a legendary food selection – some say the largest in Milan. American pop plays softly in the background. Drinks cost $8-$12. Servers helpfully bring the plates of focaccia, pizza and pasta to your table, so you won’t miss seconds. At nine, all is cleared to make room for the delicious desserts.

Via Ascanio Sforza, 9, Navigli
Such an impressive food selection that you probably won’t notice the burnt orange walls, animal prints and knick-knack decorations. Word about the free focaccia, cold cuts, pasta and French fries is out; arrive by 7, before the line gets out of hand.

Radetzky Café
Via Largo La Foppa, 5, Brera
One of the trendiest bars in one of the trendiest neighborhoods. The party flows out into the cobblestoned streets on warm nights, as crowds drink and smoke around the picturesque bar. Aperitivo is the standard spread, and drinks average about $12.

Caffè Miani Zucca In Galleria
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, in Piazza Duomo
Zucca aims to revive the golden days of aperitivo. The keyword is classic: classic old-fashioned décor; classic, simple food (olives, potato chips and nuts); and classic, original aperitivo drinks (Negroni and the classic Milanese martini). Watch the crowds pass through the Galleria as you gaze at the Duomo and remember a simpler time.