Between the hours of 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., the Milanese file into their neighborhood bars and fashionable watering holes. They elbow their way to the bar and partake in one of the city’s long-held social traditions: the aperitivo. Strictly speaking, an aperitivo is a pre-meal drink served to whet your appetite or, as the Italians say, to “open your stomach,” commonly with drinks such as Campari and orange juice or Cinzano on ice. But in recent years it has become much more. Now with the added promise of free snacks, bars compete to offer the most alluring pre-dinner scene in town.
“Twenty years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find a bar in the city that served anything other than Italian wine, bitters or vermouth. If you wanted a cocktail, you had to go to Bar Basso or a luxury hotel,” Vinicio Valdo says between sips of a Rabarbaro Zucca and soda—an old-fashioned drink for a forward-thinking entrepreneur.
An eighth generation Milanese, Valdo is known as the maestro of the aperitivo, having opened his first bar, Cap Saint Martin, in 1988, when he introduced a wide array of cocktails served with a complimentary buffet of Italian finger foods—a move that set off an aperitivo arms race and helped the trend evolve into what it is today. “When I started in this business, I even had to source and import my own limes,” Valdo says.
In the past twenty years, the aperitivo experience has been elevated to a social standard for the Milanese and shouldn’t be dismissed as just another happy hour. Every bar puts out some plate or nosh for patrons ready to start the evening, who come for drinks laced with digestivi. Whether they’re offering potato chips or pairing top-line crudo with sparkling wine, Milan is the capital of cocktail hour snacking.
My tour of the city’s greatest aperitivi begins at Roialto
, a 17,000 square-foot autofficina (car repair garage) that Valdo converted into a cocktail bar and restaurant in 1998. Well-heeled fashionistas sip Mai Tais out of coconuts while balancing plates of hand-sliced salumi, cheeses and arancini. In this city of see-and-be-seen, the main attraction at Roialto is surprisingly not the crowd but the nine filling stations, or waiter-staffed food carts, serving everything from fresh-flipped omelettes to heaping bowls of polenta with spicy meat ragu. “I have moved away from putting food out on the bar,” Valdo says. In his next place, Imperius, due to open around the corner on via Chizzolini, “I plan to serve a plateau of raw fish, vegetables and a rotating assortment of cooked items on each table,” he adds.
In contrast to Roialto’s soaring contemporary space, Victoria Caffè, hidden behind the Teatro alla Scala, is intimate and recalls a Milan of the past. The art nouveau-style corner bar, frequented by theatergoers, performers and stagehands, makes a top-of-the-line Greyhound with freshly squeezed citrus, and a passion fruit Caipirinha to go with a mountainous assortment of colorful pasta dishes, grilled vegetables and salads.
To get the full experience, I board one of the city’s wooden trolley cars, and with the clattering of its wheels on the tracks, I arrive at Officina 12
, a sleek and sexy restaurant on the western bank of Milan’s famed canals, or navigli. At dark, the strolling crowds step inside to warm up with slices of hot pizza or riso al salto, a traditional Milanese patty of saffron rice. A platter of chicken salad made with chicory, ribbon-thin slices of zucchini, grated ricotta salata and parsley is a welcome sight next to a glass of a fruity, flavorful white wine from Calabria.
Hopping from bar to bar, it quickly becomes apparent that while some focus on the quantity and selection of their buffet, others distinguish themselves in terms of quality and theme. “Da Claudio” and Fioraio Bianchi Caffè, both located in Brera, one of the higher of Milan’s high-rent districts, fall into the latter category.
“Da Claudio” Pescheria dei Milanesi
is an upscale seafood shop, aperitivo bar and restaurant that recently reopened in a larger space, catty-corner from its original location. For their aperitivo, Italian crudo, or raw fish, is served on plastic plates together with a free flute of prosecco. Ask for a Misto Mediterraneo, an assortment of swordfish with mushrooms, olives and parsley, tuna with spring onions, and salmon with sliced almonds, parsley and capers.
Having cleared my plate, I clean my hands with a “da Claudio” branded wipe and pull out my map to navigate the cobblestone roads leading to my next stop: Fioraio Bianchi
. When Raimondo Bianchi, one of Milan’s top florists, moved his operation into the basement of his corner shop, he freed up enough space for a bar and a handful of tables. Carefully curated with Bianchi’s seasonal blooms, this restaurant offers top-notch edibles and an impressive wine list, including hard-to-find French labels. Baby peaches preserved in vinegar, garnet-red horse bresaola and ramekins filled with artichoke flan are carefully arranged alongside platters of warm cornmeal farinata and crispy shrimp in kataifi.
The Bulgari Hotel
, tucked at the end of a residential road in the center of Milan, is not far from Bianchi. Nowhere else in the city is the aperitivo service as personalized and refined. Here the concept of the buffet has been substituted with a choreographed series of small dishes brought to your table so you don’t have to wait in line or fight for the last meatball. A pinzimonio for two (a bowl of raw vegetables accompanied by a shot glass of olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper) arrives swiftly, along with a plate of soft and sweet Mozzarella di Bufala, followed by Sardinian fregula with diced zucchini and a half slice of cotechino served on a bed of puréed lentils. After he presents a small ceramic bowl of octopus tendrils and olives, the bartender explains that it is called polipo naviglio, a play on words that jokingly suggests the restaurant hauls in its fish from Milan’s dirty canals.
To conclude my escapade, I make a trip to Bar Basso
to pay homage to Mirko Stocchetto, the man Valdo says “revolutionized the way people drink in Milan.” The resident barman at Hotel Monaco in Venice and later at Hotel de la Poste in Cortina, Stocchetto brought to the city an unparalleled repertoire of cocktails and a roster of clientele that included Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Sellers. Stocchetto took over Bar Basso in 1967 and quickly turned the chandeliered dive of fading 19th century design into the place to drink in the city. During the Salone del Mobile design fair or any given fashion week, the bar is packed with stylish insiders sipping away at Sidecars, Manhattans or a Negroni Sbagliato—the bar’s signature cocktail made of Campari, sweet vermouth and sparkling white wine (rather than the gin used in the classic Negroni) served in a custom-designed stemmed glass. Apparently, on a busy night more than 35 years ago, Stocchetto—known to keep his bar cataloged as if it were the Biblioteca Nazionale—reached back for the gin and came up with spumante, a felicitous mistake that led to the creation of one of Italy’s most well-known cocktails.
It is the last evening of my trip and I am in Milan’s most legendary watering hole, so I order a Negroni
. Stocchetto’s son, Maurizio, brings it to my table with a few olives and a bowl of potato chips. Judging by the swimming pool-size chalice he sets down, it’s clear that at Bar Basso the focus is on the drink, not the food. “I can get you something else, if you want,” he says when he sees my reaction to the giant glass. “When in Milan,” I reply and dive right in.
Photography by Matteo Carassale
WHERE TO DRINK
With an unadulterated 19th century interior, this historic bar is known for inventing the Negroni Sbagliato, and attracts fashion and design industry insiders, as well as Milanese regulars. Via Plinio, 39, at the intersection with Viale Abruzzi, 0229.400580, barbasso.com. Closed Tuesday.
Bar at the Bulgari Hotel
Milan’s most manicured aperitivo offers a series of small, plated appetizers served to you at the lobby bar or in the private garden of this exclusive hotel. Via Privata Fratelli Gabba, 7/b, 0280.58051, bulgarihotels.com. Open every day.
This 50-year-old fish market specializes in crudo, or raw seafood, and recently moved across the street to a larger, sleeker storefront. Via Cusani, 1, 0280.56857, pescheriadaclaudio.it. Closed Sunday.
Fioraio Bianchi Caffè
Housed in a former florist’s shop, this tiny hideaway attracts journalists and weary shoppers with its elegant buffet and carefully curated wine list. Via Montebello, 7, 0229.014390. Closed Sunday.
Globe presents an aperitivo with a view, distinguished by a varied buffet of hot and cold Italian snacks on the terraced 8th floor of a department store. Piazza Cinque Giornate, 1 (8th Floor of Coin Department Store), 0255.181969, globeinmilano.it. Open every day.
An oasis among the more boisterous bars lining Milan’s canals, or navigli, this restaurant has a house-made aperitivo buffet, well worth the price of a drink. Alzaia Naviglio Grande, 12, 0289.422261, officina12.it. Open every day.
A venerable aperitivo factory, Roialto is packed with food carts, exotic cocktails and hundreds of revelers every night. Via Piero della Francesca, 55, 0234.936616, roialtogroup.it. Closed Monday.
Tucked away behind the Teatro alla Scala, this bar features an appealing, authentic art nouveau interior and offers specialty cocktails, fun music and platters filled with pasta salads. Via Clerici, 1, 0280.53598. Closed Sunday.