If you visit Italy, you'll often get asked by natives if you would like to have an "aperitivo" together before dinner. In the winter and spring, these drinks happen around 5-5:30pm. However, in the summer months, when the sun sets at 9:30pm and dinner is eaten at 9, these drinks start much later.

cocktail, ice, alcohol, juice, cranberry, lemon, wine, vermouth, aperitif, liquor, vodka
Brittney Salter

Growing up in Italy, I've heard friends ask to meet for aperitivo more often than they've asked to meet for dinner. So why is the "aperitivo" so essential to Italian social life, and what exactly is this staple of Italian culture? 

Meaning of the Modern Aperitivo

"Aperitivo" is the Italian word for aperitif, and this so-called "meal" consists of an alcoholic drink accompanied by light bites to nibble on (in order to prevent one from getting too drunk before the sun goes down).

These pre-dinner drinks are meant to stimulate appetite, but over the years various bars around the country have turned aperitivo into a full-fledged meal.

Instead of serving drinks with merely a bowl of nuts or a plate of cold cuts, many bars have created mini buffets, or will serve you plates piled high with creative (and filling!) snacks.

cheese, bread
Marie Chantal Marauta

For the price of usually around 5-10 Euro, one gets a drink AND unlimited access to a table (or large plate) teeming with fresh pizza, delicious cold cuts, alternative pastas, grilled vegetables, and much, much more.

Thus, through the circus of food and conversations that never end, aperitivo has often come to replace dinner. 

Why is it culturally significant? 

Apart from being a time after work during which friends and co-workers can socialize, let loose, and feel human again, the "aperitivo" is a symbol of Italian social life for a few reasons. 

First, the worldwide diet craze has hit even the country renown for its foodgasmic cuisine. Thus, middle-aged ladies who "don't want to have much for dinner" will meet to grab a "light" aperitivo - yet end up eating probably more than they would have at a restaurant.

Alison Cassidy

Second, the re-vamped aperitivo has become a saving grace for "young folks" on a student budget, who would like alcohol and food but don't want to spend a fortune on it. 

Lastly, the "aperitivo" has become a rite of passage into adulthood. When one goes from being a teenager to being "maggiorenne" (the Italian word for "adult," at age 18), social activities go from getting gelato and kebab to having "aperitivo."

The American equivalent would be going to a bar and having your first cosmo in a tall glass, à la Carrie Bradshaw!

cocktail, vodka
Emma Noyes

How do you navigate "aperitivo" as a tourist? 

Pre-dinner drinks are an absolute godsend, so go with the natives and order a typical Italian cocktail (my personal favorite is a refreshing peach Bellini).

Pace yourself, nibble on the delicious food, and enjoy the conversation. The "aperitivo" is a social activity not meant to get you drunk and rowdy; instead, the alcohol is supposed to help you let down your guard a little and socialize more easily (plus, it helps break language barriers!). 

cocktail, wine, alcohol, juice, ice
Gabrielle Levitt

So if you visit Italy, replacing dinner with aperitivo one night is a must. Summer days are long, so whether you're lounging on a Tuscan beach or sitting in an ancient Piazza, enjoy the never-ending light with a fresh glass and good company.