Friday, May 26, 2017


We love the Cilento any time of the year,  but one of the things we loved about being here in September and October was the more relaxed pace of life in the Fall.  I’m happy to say the same applies to the Spring as well.  It’s not that people aren’t busy now, but without the hordes of tourists on the weekends in July and all during August, the logistics of work, school, and shopping are just much simpler.  Even the crazy Italian drivers seem more chill, unless I’m just becoming accustomed to some of their frivolity.

This atmosphere feels more genuinely Italian.  In general, Italians are hard-working folk, but they don’t worship work and materialism the way many Americans do.  Family, good food, friends, traditions—those are the keystones of a balanced life, and they require time.  Italians just prioritize time to slow down, socialize, get out to the piazza to schmooze.  And one of the most delightful manifestations of that urge is the aperitivo.

The aperitivo is similar to the Spanish tapas or even the stop by your local bar after work, but it’s also different.  There’s a great deal of debate as to when and where the aperitivo became a standard part of the Italian repertoire.  According to Andrea Adams’ article in the Huffington Post, from which I’m shamelessly cribbing here, some think it was invented in 1786 by Antonio Benedetto Carpano, creator of modern vermouth, as a way to hustle his hooch.  Others attribute the ritual to Gaspare Campari in the 1860s.  Campari opened a bar in Milano and began serving snacks and drinks which he mixed with his home-brewed Campari liqueur, now world famous.

Crunchies and drinks at Bar Anna.  On the right is the classic Aperol spritz.
Bread sticks wrapped with prosciutto

Personally, I think like so many food myths, these are both probably wrong.  For one thing, vermouth was invented, not in the eighteenth century, but in the first, by the Romans, who were entranced by a new drink called conditum, a mix of wine and various herbs and spices.  None other than crazy Nero supposedly introduced the fad of serving it as a chilled (with imported snow!) pre-dinner drink with nibbles.  And one of the standard herbs in the mixture was artemisia, otherwise known as wormwood, which gives both its name and its characteristic bitterness to vermouth.

Sandy's concoction, blood-orange juice with amaretto

Olives with local stracchino cheese

In any case, the name aperitivo comes from Latin aperire, ‘to open’ (as in aperture and April) to describe a slightly bitter, low-alcohol cocktail served with small bites to start the digestive juices flowing.  The aperitivo is drunk after work, sometime between 5 and 9, so that you’ll be ready for that cena at 9, the standard dining hour here except in winter.  Its opposite is the digestivo, also a bitter, in this case a tiny dram of an infused alcohol often flavored with bitter almonds or walnuts.  Here the idea is to aid digestion after a heavy meal.  Hey, it may sound weird, but it works.  Besides, its bad form to argue anything food with an Italian; trust me, you’ll make a fool of yourself.

Bitterish cocktails with foods appeared first in the modern world in the bars in Milan in the 1920s, and they have become widespread all over Italy.  In some of the big cities, the ritual has morphed into the apericena, a cocktail which gives you access to a buffet of appetizers, and in some cases free rein to go back for seconds or even thirds without buying another drink.  Needless to say, extremely popular with the college crowd.

Canapés are popular noshes.

An aperitivo overlooking the Greek  temples in Paestum

Typical drinks for an aperitivo are the Aperol and Campari spritzes; that is, either Aperol or Campari liqueur (both somewhat bitter from the chinotto, the bitter orange) mixed with sparkling wine  and soda.  Also popular are the Americano, which substitutes vermouth for the liqueurs, and the Negroni composed of Campari, gin and vermouth.  Drinks are beautifully presented and delicious.  Our favorite refinement is the straw made from compressed sugar which they use at Bar Nazionale. Foods are served in stylish serving dishes and are more or less elaborate.  At a minimum there will be salty, crunchy snacks such as peanuts, chips, or our local taralli, little baked biscuits in a donut shape.  Otherwise you may see olives, grilled veggies, tiny canapés of all sorts, Italian cheeses, even fresh pasta.  In some of the big cities, bars may resort to international foods such as curried chicken and couscous.

The redheads enjoy some social time.

In our area, bars offer strictly aperitivi, not apericene.  And that is fine with me.  A nice aperitivo for two people here in the Cilento, both food and drink, will set you back all of ten bucks. There are places in my home city where you can’t get a single, decent glass of wine for that price. If you’re still ravenous, the best pizza in the world will cost you six, and you can have a beer with that for an extra buck fifty.  Just don’t expect the wood-fired pizza ovens to be ready before 8:30.

The one essential ingredient of the aperitivo is that you find a sidewalk table, order a drink, kick back, relax, unwind, enjoy the luscious weather, and socialize with your friends.  And don’t get in a hurry; if you get up out of your seat in less than an hour, the barkeep will be highly insulted.  Miss Sandy and I often aren’t overflowing with conversation since we’re together 24-7, but that’s just fine as well.  The other after-work ritual here in the Mezzogiorno is the evening stroll, the passeggiatta, and it’s easily the best curbside show on earth:  couples ambling along together, friends of the same sex—both male and female—strolling along arm-in-arm, completely unselfconscious, teenagers and especially preteens doing the Italian version of the cruise, children riding scooters, trikes, bikes, and hover boards, proud mamas and papas pushing strollers, often with an even prouder nonna along, and dogs, dogs, dogs everywhere and all socializing as well.  I promise you, there is a wonderful communal vibe that is absolutely palpable.  And Sandy and I just sit and sip and smile, delighted to be even a small and unobtrusive part of that thrumming human context.

One of our favorites, in the beautiful hill town of Torchiara

Everybody enjoys the passeggiatta, even if you're just a spectator.