Aperitivo in Italy is nothing short of a social ritual so ingrained into the average routine for half the year that it almost isn’t even a question anymore. After work you grab an aperitivo. Be it with colleagues, friends, siblings, parents, it doesn’t really matter. Italian’s have seen Happy Hour and raised the English speaking world by unbeatable standard. As such, to many foreign visitors to Italy, the institution that is aperitivo remains somewhat of a mystery.

The most common question passing over the lips of such lost visitors rings along the lines of how so little money can buy you both a drink and ‘unlimited’ food. Of course, as with much of Italian culture, etiquette holds the answer to all confusion. With our beginner’s guide to aperitivo, you can discover how to navigate this social ritual to blend in with the locals and, more importantly, not mistakenly abuse the system.

When done right, an apertivo will provide a taste of some of the region’s highlights. This should just about wet the appetite just enough to later enjoy a more sumptuous meal. Remember the Italian way: everything is better with a drink, nothing is rushed, and an evening meal with friends can easily last from 19.00 through 23.00. This beginner’s guide to aperitivo is to make sure you don’t stick out like a sore thumb come aperitivo. This way you can respect this social ritual and can get the most out of doing it the right way – the Italian way.

Choose your place

Do your research and look ahead of time. Though most places won’t let you book a table for just aperitivo, it is important to find out what type of aperitivo will be on offer. This usually falls into two categories: buffet and non-buffet. For a first-timer, we recommend the non-buffet, so you don’t get too excited and eat yourself sick on the complimentary, bottomless buffets.

Also, check what kind of foods you might find here: will it just be a bruschetta or a selection of mini-bites? Are they true aperitivo connoisseurs or will you just get some ‘gourmet’ chips? Other questions to ask yourself might include the cost and the location. On average, an aperitivo should lie between 8-15€. In summer especially, it is important to find somewhere with an outdoor terrace, ideally rooftop or at least away from busy streets. Buffet places are sometimes slightly more expensive, though shouldn’t break the bank and moreover offer a wider selection.

Pick the right drink

There is a certain etiquette here. You could go for a rich red wine if you wanted. But then you could also order a chocolate cake before a steak. So instead, try a classic drink, such as the much-loved spritz. This usually comes in the Aperol or Campari variety and was specially created for this social tradition. Acceptable also is a light white wine, and at a push a cocktail. Go for something fresh though, a mojito, for example. There’s is nothing more blasphemous to the aperitivo than ruining your meal before you have even started with a careless choice of drink! If you can’t stand a spritz, why not ask the nearest server for a recommendation? This way you definitely can’t go wrong!

Don’t take advantage

We have already touched on this, but it almost cannot be stressed enough. Upon finding themselves confronted with a bottomless buffet, many of those unaccustomed to the aperitivo cannot restrain themselves and gorge their stomachs with the many options. But these offerings are not small without reason. You won’t see locals filling their plates to bursting, but rather taking two or three bites to snack on. At a push they might end up back for another such serving, should they be feeling indulgent.

You must realize that for the majority of these, the aperitivo is simply the appetizer to the main course, usually taken at a diferent locality. This is simply the time to fit in a catch up with a different group of friends, a mother, a colleague, nothing more. Though no one will stop you, it is best to show restraint. After all, 10€ for a drink and a meal is really too cheap, even in Italy. Check yourself and how much you’ve paid, don’t take advantage of the seemingly free food!

Take your time

The last piece of advice we have to offer is to take your time to enjoy this ritual. Not seeing it as a meal in itself opens the event up to many more possibilities. Sip at your drink and nibble at your food. Take long breaks to chat with the people around you, don’t be afraid to delve further than just small talk. Absolutely do not make talking the side project of this time. Always remember that you are here to socialize, first and foremost. The food and drink are simply a bonus. Don’t keep looking at your watch, either. An aperitivo can start at 18.30 and go through to 21.00, easily. Italians won’t start eating an evening meal until 20.00 at the very earliest, so don’t fret!