Rome locals offer tips for maximizing the wondrous free snacking experience that is Italian aperitivo.
Freni e Frizioni
Credit: Alberto Blasetti

You’re probably familiar with the magical concept of aperitivo—a pre-dinner drink accompanied by an abundance of nibbles. In Italy, it’s standard procedure for bars to offer complimentary snacks with your wine or Spritz or beer between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., from the rudimentary (nuts, chips, olives) to the elaborate (bruschetta, insalata di riso, local meats and cheeses.) The Italian cult of aperitivo, which doesn’t quite have an equivalent anywhere else in the world, is so powerful because…well, free snacks are powerful. (Rarely do aperitif in France or happy hour cocktails in America come accompanied with enough food to pass as dinner.) The tradition is said to have begun in the north—Turin and Milan both claim aperitivo origin stories—but has spread throughout the country; in recent years, aperitivo culture has flourished in Rome, as the idea of paying for dinner becomes less and less appealing.

“It’s a ritual now; most often you start your night off with an aperitivo,” says Andrea Spalletti Trivelli, who has lived in Rome his entire life and manages the hotel Villa Spalletti Trivelli, which, coincidentally, offers complimentary aperitivo every day at 5:00 p.m. “For us, it doesn’t exist drinking without eating. Don’t want to spend sixty euros in a restaurant? Just go to a very nice bar and drink and eat.”

If you’re headed to Rome—or anywhere else in Italy, for that matter—here’s how to make the most of your pre-dinner-but-actually-just-dinner experience.

Choose bars with the highest quality of food, which is to say—do your research.

If you’re dedicated to making snacks your dinner, make sure to scope out prospective bars’ buffet offerings before choosing a place to order your drink. La Zanzara (84 Via Crescenzio, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.) is Spalletti Trivelli’s favorite Roman aperitivo spot for eating. Here you won’t find a buffet, but rather bites like arancini and gnocchetti alla carbonara brought to your table from the kitchen. Fafiuché (28 Via della Madonna Dei Monti, 7:00 p.m. until close) is another favorite—go hungry, because the buffet of meats, cheeses, bruschette and pasta is extensive. (“They have these little pieces of bread with amazingly good blue cheese and tangerine,” I am told.) Trastevere’s hip Freni e Frizioni (4/6 Via del Politeama, 6:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.) is the move if you’re craving an over-the-top vegetarian spread of salads, pizzas, pastas and stir-fries.

Neighborhood-wise, Prati is probably your best bet. Local blogger and journalist Lorenzo Coletta says the area has become the sort of symbolic aperitivo capital of Rome. One of Coletta’s recommendations, Ta - Tacito18 (18 Via Tacito, all day), is the ideal spot for inspired cocktails, which aren’t the easiest to find in Rome. But that’s changing quickly.

Bear in mind that you might be paying a little more for your drink. Usually, it’s worth it.

“It started with the chips and the olives and the horrible frozen pizza, but then they found out the better food you offer, the higher you can charge for the drinks,” says Spalletti Trivelli. But even if you’re paying 7 euro for a drink you could find for 5 euro elsewhere, the deal is usually worth it when you consider your full plate of food.

Don’t feel bad about ruining your appetite for dinner. This can be your dinner.

Several Romans told me that eating aperitivo for dinner is socially acceptable, and you won’t get in trouble. “There are a lot of people who try to stuff themselves and say that was dinner, or you can just move on to dinner,” says Spalletti Trivelli. “It’s a bit of half and half.”

That said, if you have dinner reservations, you should probably partake in some of the lighter, almost-as-delicious options. Be on the lookout for pinzimonio di verdure—a yummy crudité dish served alongside extra virgin olive oil that’s been seasoned with pepperoncini and parsley.

Choose a seasonally appropriate drink to maximize the whole experience.

Most Italians mix up their aperitivo choice with the changing of the seasons; predictably, red wine is more popular in the winter, while white wine and cocktails dominate the summer. You would be hard-pressed, however, to resist a Spritz at any time of year.

“The Spritz has conquered the world,” a Roman bartender told me. And we’re not mad at it.