Marisa Huff is the author of Aperitivo, a cookbook that celebrates the Italian tradition of meeting for an afternoon drink and light snack. Huff has complied some of the best regional bar and restaurant recipes that transports you to all the famous destinations of Italy.
I had the chance to speak with Huff about Aperitivo, released March 15, 2016.
Q. What is aperitivo? What cultural importance does it have in Italy?
A. In Italian, the word aperitivo refers to a predinner drink, an aperitif, as well as the act of meeting friends in the early evening to enjoy said drink. As Joe Bastianich so nicely captured it in the intro of the book, “the practice of the aperitivo is a routine part of everyday life… and is much more than simply grabbing a drink. It is a fundamental example of Italian sensibility at its finest. It is an encounter, a conversation, slowing down and taking time to savor a drink with friends at the close of the day’s labors and enjoy the present moment.”
Today, in Northern Italy, aperitivo is as much of the Italian lifestyle as stopping for an espresso at your local bar each morning or treating soccer as a religion.
Q. How is aperitivo different than the Happy Hour Americans are accustomed to?
A. Unlike American happy hour, an Italian aperitivo has little to do with dollar tacos and drink specials. It consists of a glass of wine or light cocktail paired with a bite to eat. Over indulgence is not the point and is certainly not the Italian way.
Bars in Italy, particularly in Milan, may charge you more, rather than less, for a drink during the aperitivo, which generally starts at 6 p.m. and can last until 8 p.m., or 9 p.m. in the summer, as compared to 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. happy hour deals I have seen here in the States.
In Italy, the markup in the price of a drink is justified by the bar snacks that are served to you or available as a buffet at no extra charge.
Q. What made you think aperitivo would be the perfect topic for a book?
Aperitivo is something that visitors to Italy really enjoy, as it is a fun and informal way to interact with Italians. I can’t think of anyone I know who has come to Venice, let’s say, and not been curious to try a neon red or orange spritz or sip on a Bellini. It’s easy and inviting way to experience la dolce vita.
Q. What is vermouth and why is it used in so many drinks?
A. Vermouth is a fortified, aromatized wine – “fortified” meaning that a fairly neutral spirit has been added to increase the alcohol content of the wine, and “aromatized” in that the botanicals like roots, bark, flowers and citrus peels, have been infused into the wine. In the case of vermouth, as compared to other fortified, aromatized wines, the primary botanical is wormwood.
Together with potable bitters like Campari, sweet Italian vermouth provides the backbone for many aperitivo cocktails. It provides both complexity and sweetness, which balance other ingredients and tend to make you want to eat and drink more or, in other words, to sit down for dinner.
Q. Why did you want to organize the chapters by region?
A. Like most everything in Italy, the art of the aperitivo is practiced in a thoughtful and regional way so it made sense to structure the book around the regional expressions.
Q. How has living in Italy influenced the way you approached this book?
A. Well, it certainly made the research a whole lot easier. I was able to visit places multiple times and return with my photographer Andrea Fazzari. I believe that one of the things that makes this book special is that all of the photos were shot on site and not in a studio. It really gives it an authentic Italian feel.
Q. Where did you get the recipes?
A. In some cases, bartenders and chefs gave the recipes to me, while others I reconstructed myself based on the drinks and bar snacks that I experienced during my travels.
Q. Which recipe is your favorite?
A. In terms of drinks, my current go-to aperitivo cocktail is the Americano (vermouth, Campari and soda) and I really enjoy the version of this drink that they serve at Trussardi Café’ in Milan made with beer foam in place of soda water.
And my favorite food recipe has to be the carbonara tramezzino. Those little sandwiches are addictive!
Q. How did writing this book compare to the food writing you have done in the past?
A. Most of the recent food writing I have been doing is about what is going on in terms of food and wine in Italy, but my articles generally don’t include recipes. This book required a lot more time because I tested each recipe three or four times. I had to draw upon the experience of recipe-testing that I did many years ago when I worked as the research assistant to Jeffrey Steingarten, food editor of Vogue Magazine.
Q. Do you plan on doing any books similar to Aperitivo that focus on other countries or cultures in the future?
A. If I were to write another book, it would be about Italy as that is what I know best. The most obvious follow-up would be a book on the “digestivo” or after-dinner drinks, but that is a running joke at the moment.