The season that graces Florence with wisteria, iris and roses has finally arrived. It’s spring! Every café, restaurant and bar is throwing open its doors and moving chairs and tables outside to fill each square inch of available space. Why? Because it’s time to indulge in two Italian passions that mix perfectly with the bella stagione—aperitivi and people-watching!
The custom of having an aperitivo before the dinner hour is one of the most charming and civilized habits in Italy. The word is derived from the Latin verb aperire, which means ‘to open’, and that’s just what an aperitivo is—an opener to the meal. While elsewhere in the world aperitivo usually refers to a pre-dinner drink or cocktail, in Italy it also implies tasty little snacks put out for customers to enjoy. Every bar has its own way of fixing aperitivi, and the offerings (which are included in the price of the drink) range from little bowls of olives, peanuts and chips to elaborate buffet spreads that can even include hot pasta dishes. Standard aperitivo time is between 7pm and 9pm, and the atmosphere is social, friendly and relaxing.
Having aperitivi at home is a great way to entertain in a comfortable environment. The following recipes which I’ve enjoyed at local Florentine bars are long on taste and presentation but very easy to prepare. These options are based on staple foods that are always on hand, making them great for surprise visits. If you have a loaf of bread, a bit of cheese, a few tomatoes, a can of good tuna in olive oil and a few fresh herbs from your garden, you have the makings of a great aperitivo experience.
A refreshing drink, a few delicious little morsels of interesting food, good conversation, laughter and the companionship of friends—these are the true ingredients for a dolce aperitivo experience.
A loaf of bread is all you need to start. A baguette is the best choice because it slices into perfect little rounds. The rounds should be about ½ inch thick and lightly toasted on both sides. Use your imagination and personal preferences for toppings. Just spread and arrange the crostini on a serving dish.
Pomodori freschi: Dice fresh tomatoes and blend with olive oil, salt, pepper. Garnish with a basil leaf.
Pomodori secchi: Dice sun-dried tomatoes and black olives. Sautè briefly in a frying pan with olive oil and a sprinkling of black pepper.
Bietola: Beet greens, or bietola, have a strong and somewhat bitter taste, which makes them a good appetizer since they’re not sweet. Wash the bietola, discarding any tough or damaged outside leaves and boil for 10 minutes or until tender. Drain and let cool. Chop into small pieces, season with olive oil, salt and pepper. Mix well.
Frittata di cipolle: Make a frittata by beating four eggs in a bowl and then adding finely diced parsley, salt and pepper. Cook in a frying pan where you have just sauteèd a finely chopped onion in olive oil. Cook slowly, tilting the pan from side to side to allow all the egg mixture to come in contact with the heat. Once it’s no longer runny, flip the frittata over, cover the pan and cook for a minute or two longer. Flip the fritatta onto a cutting board and allow to cool slightly. Cut into bite-size pieces that fit on top of a crostini round.
Insalata di Baccelli: Fresh seasonal vegetables, like carrots, celery and radishes, chopped or sliced into bite-size pieces are always welcome at the aperitivo table and require no cooking at all. A true Florentine veggie option is the insalata di baccelli. An authentic local delicacy, baccelli look like giant string beans. They are grown in Tuscany and only appear on the market for a short time each spring.
Shell the beans and combine them in a bowl with a finely chopped tropea onion, olive oil, salt and pepper. Let them sit for a bit so that the flavors can blend. Serve with slices of pecorino cheese. Note: this is one snack that requires a small plate and fork.
Parmesan: It’s hard to beat the simple but extraordinary offering of a large chunk of reggiano parmesan sitting majestically on a cutting board with a cheese knife at the ready.
Pecorino: A favorite because of its distinctive flavor, it’s great served in slices arranged around a little bowl of good honey, which can be drizzled over each slice before eating.
Parmesan crisps: This is one treat that has to be baked, but it’s not very complicated and definitely worth the effort. People will eat as many of these tasty crisps as you can provide, so make more than you think you’ll need.
Combine 1 cup finely shredded parmesan cheese; 2 teaspoons flour; 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Preheat oven to 350F/177C. In a small bowl, mix all ingredients together. Place teaspoonfuls of the mixture on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper leaving a few inches between each. Press into little ovals. Bake flat on a rack until golden brown for about 6–8 minutes. Note: this is a dry mixture as the recipe contains no liquids. Although crisps may seem powdery before baking, the melted cheese holds everything together nicely.
As for the right drinks to serve, there are three Italian brews that figure prominently in the aperitivo world: Campari, Martini and Prosecco. In this case, ‘Martini’ is actually the brand name of a very tasty red vermouth—not the James Bond variety. My own personal favorite is Prosecco, that bubbly Italian cousin to French champagne. Mixed cocktails are always welcome, too, if you have the time and a well-stocked bar.