Food & Drinks

The Next-Gen Italian Aperitivo

“The sky is the limit when it comes to aperitivo,” declares Las Vegas bartender Ivonne Moy.

Indeed, the cultural cornerstone of golden hour in Italy is pushing boundaries more than ever. Over the past few years in particular, the category has expanded as consumers have started to seek out lighter, more “sessionable” options alongside the hallmark stirred-and-strong drinks of the cocktail renaissance.

In that space, the Italian way of drinking fits right in.

While the traditional vision of the aperitivo cocktail has revolved around red or orange bitters, creative bar pros are increasingly switching things up to reflect more varied flavor profiles and an ever-widening array of bottle choices. For some, that involves turning to Italicus, the low-proof, Turin-made bergamot rosolio liqueur, which celebrates native Italian herbs and aromatics and was created in 2016 by Giuseppe Gallo, an Italian native and bartender. Italicus includes among its flavorings the dried peels of Calabrian bergamot, a variety of citrus fruit, along with chamomile, citron, gentian root, lavender, lemon balm and rose petal. Together, these botanicals create a bittersweet liqueur that plays well with the notes often sought in the aperitivo suite, such as citrus and bubbles.

But as the parameters for golden hour drinking have broadened, a question has arisen: What exactly constitutes an aperitivo cocktail, and a good one? It’s more about function and personal taste than a strict formula for a drink, bartenders emphasize.

“It’s something to have before dinner to open up the palate,” explains Nick Palmeri of Gaetano’s Ristorante, an Italian fine-dining destination off the Las Vegas Strip. “Some people in the U.S. get confused by that.”

“Aperitivo isn’t just about the drinks,” emphasizes bartender Valentino Longo, born in Rome and now based in Miami. “It’s more about the moment. Usually an aperitivo is happening between 5 to 8 p.m. with some friends, right before going to dinner.” Often, that means snacks and “a good low-ABV, bitter, refreshing drink.”

For example, Longo’s A Summer Sip cocktail offers a creative riff on the classic spritz. At Miami’s Four Seasons Surfside, Longo leans into seasonal Florida citrus, playing up the bitter orange–like bergamot note in Italicus with a vermouth-fortified blood orange “sherbet” and grapefruit-spiked saline. A half-rim of salt mixed with dried blood orange peel adds the finishing citrusy touch. The result checks all the right boxes—low-alcohol, bitter, refreshing—but still offers surprises.

This isn’t a new trend, says Moy, director of guest experience at LEV Group in Las Vegas. She observes that the aperitivo tradition has been evolving over the past couple of years.

“People are becoming more adventurous, and using homemade infusions and vermouths,” she notes. That means pretty much every component of a “classic” aperitivo is ripe for modification.

Moy embodies this experimental mindset with her Gloria cocktail, created for Italian restaurant La Strega. The drink starts with an ounce and a half of Italicus, shaken with fresh cucumber and watermelon juices, as well as watermelon shrub for acidic zing. In place of traditional soda water or Prosecco, a healthy pour of sour Weisse beer tops the tall, effervescent drink.

Meanwhile, Palmeri traces some of these changes to the introduction of new products and mixers. But he also sees consumers becoming more confident and adventurous as they become more exposed to Italian products in drinks. For example, he cites Rome-based cookbook author Katie Parla and actor Stanley Tucci, host of CNN’s Searching for Italy, as “aperitivo influencers.”

Looking ahead, bartenders predict that interest in lighter-style drinks will propel the aperitivo category even further.

“I think people are beginning to really embrace and value enjoying a delicious cocktail without overdoing it,” Moy says. “Our culture is shifting.” She also sees on the horizon drinks that span categories, such as combining tea, coffee or spirits like brandy with lower-proof options.

Palmeri’s The Royal Spritz is a perfect example of this burgeoning trend, mixing an ounce of Cognac and 2 dashes of orange bitters alongside a generous measure of Italicus.

“I like citrus with citrus in my aperitivos,” Palmeri says. He selected a small-batch Cognac with pronounced orange and vanilla notes and found that mixing it with Italicus worked a kind of magic, he explains. “The bergamot, chamomile and rose petals sort of hypes the Cognac a little more—it accelerates it,” he says. “When you add Prosecco as the finishing touch, and add the orange peel, squeezing the oils into the cocktail—it’s like, wow!” He describes the final drink as “the flavors of Amalfi meet Southern France.”

When developing new iterations of aperitivo cocktails, Palmeri feels that it helps to remember that Italians have been tinkering with the spritz and its ilk for decades.

“A spritz is only one form of aperitivo,” says Palmeri, noting that the idea is to open up the palate, not conform to a specific drink style. “I think if you ask 10 Italians what makes for a good aperitivo, each will have a different answer!”

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