As the clock strikes 6pm, new Sicilian café and wine bar Iddu in London’s South Kensington is a hive of activity. Handsome copper lights cast a warm glow over the burr-oak tables and the place is abuzz with an animated local clientele. Crates of blood oranges and pink grapefruit line the walls, and art books on the Aeolian islands transport some solo diners to sunny climes. Yet Italy doesn’t feel far away.
Delicious fresh plates of Datterini tomato bruschetta and fresh pods of broad beans are piled high on the counter as the first Vulcano Agrumi – made with Amaro Montenegro, bergamot and Aperol – make their way to customers. Others are supping on a Salina Spritz – a bittersweet mixture of prosecco, soda water, rhubarb vermouth and blood orange juice – to accompany nuggets of 28-month-aged Parmesan, or a Negroni, made with Ophir gin, Campari Bitter, Carpano Antica Formula and mandarin juice. This is the aperitivo hour, enjoyed across Italy, and now becoming a firm fixture on the London scene, thanks to a number of new-style bars.
The British have long favoured an early-evening drink – whether it be a glass of champagne or a perfectly mixed G&T – but the Italian-style aperitivo, a wonderfully summery way to herald the start of the evening, signals a shift. “Aperitivo” means to open the appetite (“aperire” is “to open” in Latin), and the word refers to both the drink itself, and the ritual of going out for a pre-dinner tipple with some light bites.
Drinks are mainly based around a bitter aromatised wine or spirit such as vermouth (a fortified wine flavoured with botanicals such as roots, barks, flowers and seeds), Campari or Aperol – the bitterness thought to stimulate the appetite – while nibbles are usually small plates of often complimentary bruschetta, olives and hams. A Spritz (a mix of prosecco with a bitter such as Aperol and made light with soda), hailing from Venice, is a popular choice, as is an Americano (soda, vermouth and Campari), or a punchier concoction such as the Negroni (gin, Campari and vermouth) or Boulevardier (bourbon, vermouth and Campari). Yet the term is fluid, so aperitivo bars across Europe also pour prosecco-based drinks such as Bellinis, and other cocktails too.
Turin (where vermouth as we know it was invented in 1786) and Milan are the original capitals of the aperitivo, but it is now found across the whole of Italy – and the Spanish too have embraced the trend, with vermouth bars popping up in Barcelona in recent years (establishments such as Bormuth barrel age their own concoctions, served alongside melt-in-the-mouth slices of Ibérico ham and other tapas).
In London, Mele e Pere on Brewer Street focuses almost entirely on vermouths, ranging from those by artisan producers such as the Ethicurian in Cornwall to its own gentian, hyssop and lemongrass infusions. It also offers vermouth-tasting masterclasses, designed to take you through the blending process, accompanied by sharing plates of ascolana olives and San Daniele ham. Tozi in Victoria – an excellent cicchetti (small bites) pit stop – rests its own Negroni in wood for two months, while at Shot in Fulham, the daytime coffee shop transforms at 6pm into a convivial aperitivo hotspot, the place heaving with people drinking signature Negronis and Aperol Spritz alongside small complimentary tasters of pesto bruschetta and chargrilled vegetables.
Over at cocktail maestro Tony Conigliaro’s Bar Termini, new to Soho last November, it’s a similar story – the aim is to serve coffee from 7.30am through to cocktails at the aperitivo hour and beyond. With its metal racks on the walls, pistachio-green leather seats (the hue had to resemble perfectly the dining table of Conigliaro’s grandmother) and bossa nova music, it transports you to a 1950s Italian train station. Here the Negronis are pre-prepared, aged and served in miniature custom-made glasses without ice, so the flavour is never diluted. Particularly tasty is the pink peppercorn-infused variation. It serves an interesting array of small-batch vermouths as well, such as Luli and Jack Bevan’s The Collector Vermouth. Nibbles of Parmesan and ham are provided free of charge with prosecco and a short menu that also offers gastro-teasers such as pomodoro tartare and a choice of Italian cured meats.
Also in November, Russell Norman, co-founder of the Venetian-influenced Polpo restaurant group, opened a Spritz bar in his Polpo at Ape & Bird, with a focus on Spritzs made with interesting Italian spirits such as Cynar (an artichoke-based digestif that’s great as an aperitvo when mixed with soda). “The Spritz is a lighter way to drink – it is no way near the strength of a spirit,” says Norman. “The botanicals and bitters give it a wonderful tang. It is an excellent appetite sharpener.” The bar also serves other vermouth-based cocktails such as the Martinez Bianco, a lip-smacklingly fresh mix of Beefeater gin, Cinzano Bianco, maraschino and grapefruit – alongside cicchetti that includes crab arancini and smoked salmon and horseradish crostini.
London’s more established bars are welcoming aperitivo culture too – and making a point of focusing on an artisanal touch. The Blue Bar at the Berkeley hotel in Mayfair serves its own vermouths (which are barrel-aged on site and particularly good in a Negroni Molto Sbagliato with Campari, grapefruit bitters and Laurent-Perrier champagne), as does the American Bar at the Savoy; its vermouth is made in partnership with Turin-based company Cocchi – which is delectable in the excellent Roaring 50s with Herradura tequila, Cynar, grenadine and absinthe.
At Morton’s, the members’ club in Berkeley Square, barman Francesco Mignogna ages four different Negronis in barrels on the bar. These include a Boulevardier, made with Woodfood Reserve bourbon, Cinzano Rosso, Campari and chocolate bitters – a rich and silky drink that has something of the gentlemen’s club about it. The Morton’s Negroni, made with Belsazar Vermouth Red, Tanquery Ten and Campari, transports you straight to the canalside bars of Navigli in Milan. The convivial Italian touch is further in evidence with a table laden with delicious morsels, such as nduja croquettes, lobster and avocado crostini, wheels of Parmesan and little bowls of spring vegetable risotto and tapenade of Parma ham. Kicking off from 5pm to 7pm every evening, the aim of its newly introduced apertivo is to bring guests together. “We want to give something extra and add a little touch of Italy,” explains bar manager Costantino Armocida.
Mixing an aperitivo at home is also becoming quite the thing, served neat over ice (as in the bars of Barcelona). New vermouth launches to try include Belsazar (four varieties, from £25 for 75cl for the dry vermouth, from Master of Malt) from Germany, the myrtle and lime-packed Regal Rouge from Australia (£30 for 75cl, from 31 Dover), and Sacred Spiced English Vermouth, heady with liquorice and cloves (£30 for 75cl, from The Whisky Exchange), made in Highgate.
But the culture really remains at its most vivacious in bars: “The aperitivo hour is where you want to interact with your friends in a good place,” says Iddu manager Andrea Bassi, “where you have beautiful people, sharing a beautiful moment.”