Conventional Italian wisdom holds that Rome is the city of churches and Milan is the city of banks. The Lombard capital in the north of the elongated Mediterranean peninsula is indeed the national hub of finance, fashion and design. As store shutters are drawn and banking hours end, Milan is bustling with busy urbanites looking to fill the time between business hours and their dinner reservations.
L’aperitivo, Italy’s tradition of pre-meal cocktails roughly equivalent to “happy hour” in America, is more than a gastronomic curtain raiser. In Milan, it’s a celebrated cultural institution. Thanks to the city’s inherent wealth and deep-rooted sense of style, l’aperitivo is a chance to see and be seen. And, in such a work-conscious metropolis, it’s also the perfect opportunity for winding down with colleagues and friends.
Unlike happy hour in, say, Manhattan where a Wall Street banker might enjoy a spirits-based drink after work with pretzels and peanuts, the whole point of l’aperitivo is to pair easy finger foods with the cocktails or wines being served. The idea is to “open your stomach” before dinner with enough food to absorb any alcohol but not enough to suppress your appetite. The foods typically served, called stuzzichini (Italian for “little teasers”) are far more sophisticated and surprisingly lighter than America’s happy hour snacks.
The Milanesi in particular pride themselves on the quality of the stuzzichini served at aperitivo. Chefs vigorously compete for clients by offering elaborate recipes and creative pairing opportunities. The venues (bars and hotel lounges throughout the city) offer generous buffet-styled countertops where patrons can pile their plates high with quiches, cold cuts, couscous, pastas, rice salads and even sauerkraut and würstel, a throwback to Milan’s period under Austrian rule. There are no other rules or limits expect one: in Milan, these gorgeous finger food buffets are always free of charge for anyone who buys a drink or two.
Still and sparkling wines, of which Italy has a rich patrimony, make perfect companions to the fresh Mediterranean flavors featured in aperitivo small plates. More standard drinks are the Puccini (Prosecco wine blended with mandarin juice) and the Rossini (Prosecco with strawberries). Of course there is also Campari (an Italian bitter), a Milanesi cocktail icon. Most drink Campari with other spirits: the Negroni, for instance, is Campari, vermouth, dry gin and a slice of orange. Other international favorites are the black currant Kir Royale, Cuban Mojito and mint Caprioska. Although l’aperitivo culture is so specific to northern Italy, the concept can be easily exported for those planning an afternoon rendezvous with friends or hosting pre-dinner cocktails at home. If that’s the case for you, here are a few recipe suggestions for your own early evening gathering. Buon Aperitivo!
Salmon with Green Pepper, Beans and Yogurt
2 pounds fresh salmon
Ground green peppercorn
1 large green pepper, chopped small
2 cups green beans, chopped small
2 cups fresh yogurt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Fillet the salmon and sprinkle with ground green peppercorn and salt. Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes. Remove skin, cut into small chunks and place into a large mixing bowl. Cook the green pepper and green beans in boiling water for five minutes. Drain and add to the salmon with the yogurt, olive oil and salt. Mix well and serve cool.
Wine Recommendation: Pinot Grigio and other wines made from Italy’s native white grapes are an excellent match for this salmon dish. Carpineto’s Dogajolo (a white wine from Tuscany) and Tenuta Ca’ Bolani’s Pinot Grigio from Friuli are good choices.
Red Rice Salad with Vegetables and Pesto Sauce
2 cups red rice (brown rice, farro or
bulghur wheat can substitute)
1⁄2 cup washed basil leaves
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1⁄4 cup grated pecorino cheese
1 cup carrot, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 cup onion, chopped
1 cup zucchini, chopped
1 cup eggplant, chopped
Salt and pepper
Boil the red rice in water until al dente, drain and set aside. Prepare the pesto sauce by blending the basil, olive oil, pecorino cheese and pine nuts until smooth. Add one or two tablespoons of water to make the pesto sauce more liquid. Fry the carrots, celery and onion in a large skillet with olive oil until the onions are transparent. Add the zucchini and eggplant towards the end. Add the vegetables to the rice in a large bowl and mix in the pesto sauce. Season to taste.
Wine Recommendation: A light Italian rosé makes the perfect companion to the red rice thanks to its similar hue and wild berry flavors. Mastroberardino’s Lacrimarosa (a rosé made from Aglianico grapes in southern Italy) has the floral aromas and small berry flavors to pair with basil pesto.
Olive Ascolane (Fried Olives Stuffed with Meat)
5 ounces ground pork
5 ounces ground veal
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 cup dry white wine
3 ounces prosciutto crudo, cut into
3 ounces grated pecorino cheese
3 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup breadcrumbs, divided
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 eggs, divided
1 tomato, chopped
2 pounds large green olives whole
with pit removed
2 cups of olive oil for frying
Cook the ground pork and veal in a large skillet with the olive oil, salt, pepper and white wine. Once the wine has evaporated, cover the meat and set aside to cool. Add the meat to a large food processor with the prosciutto crudo, pecorino, Parmesan, about 2 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs, nutmeg, 2 eggs and chopped tomato. Blend well until you achieve a paste. Stuff the de-pitted green olives with the meat mixture. Roll each olive in beaten egg (using the 2 remaining eggs) then once moist, roll each olive in breadcrumbs to cover its full surface area. Fill a large skillet with olive oil (about two fingers up the side of the skillet) and fry the olives until crisp and golden in color. Serve hot.
Wine Recommendation: In terms of wine pairing ideas, Mionetto’s Il Prosecco and Adami’s Garbèl Prosecco both have the cheerful effervescence and natural acidity to enliven the taste of olive oil in fried foods. These wines also have the delicate fragrances needed to enhance the complex flavors inside the olive’s stuffing.