Mary Giuliani—our entertainment contributor, caterer to the Rolling Stones and Oprah, and pal to our gal Rach—shares a primer on the 'Italian happy hour.' And it's all about finding your chill.

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aperitivo drinks tomatoes prosciutto olives terrazzo countertop knife plate
Credit: Paola + Murray

The first proper aperitivo I attended was in Fiesole, Italy. After the host handed me a beautiful brightly colored cocktail with an orange-peel twist, she informed me that the proper name for my drink was a Negroni and then asked, "Do you know where the Campari in your Negroni gets its bright red coloring from?" Mouth full of Parmigiano-Reggiano, I simply shook my head that I did not.

"The feet of insects."

Let me rewind: In 1996, I arrived in Florence to begin my junior-year semester abroad—an American whose air-travel history until this point comprised one trip to Florida. Yet here I was in the small, picturesque Italian town known for its incredible villas and ornate gardens, ready to immerse myself in all things Italiano!

While the adjustment period was intense (Who knew pizza didn't come in slices?), I slowly began to fall in love with all things Italian, including aperitivo, the Italian version of happy hour. Mind you, college student Mary's version leaned more toward TGI Fridays. Don't get me wrong: I still appreciate a good all-you-can-eat potato skin-and-mozzarella stick buffet accompanied by drinks large enough to float a pool raft on. But the art and elegance of the aperitivo was a stark contrast and, I've come to learn, the perfect version of less-is-more entertaining.

Two great things about the aperitivo (especially in this new post-COVID world, where we are slowly learning how to socialize again): There is no real meal expectation, meaning you don't have to spend all day preparing dinner. It's about small bites, low-ABV drinks, and great conversation…in a finite amount of time! (Usually an hour, two at the most.) What's better than that?

Over the years, I've incorporated the aperitivo vibe into the way I encourage my clients to entertain (especially those who want to make a big impact in a small amount of time) by suggesting aperitivo-inspired ideas. I love a crostini bar (see below); or instead of a cheese board, I'll suggest focusing on one type of cheese, like burrata. Then the cheese becomes the main event and the beautiful toppings like sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and eggplant tapenade dress it up. Add a Negroni bar or some beautiful Italian sodas (I love Lurisia, but check your local Italian deli or just grab some flavored Pellegrinos at the market) that can be served straight or spiked. And your work is done!

Next time you're inspired to entertain, I highly recommend you invite your pals over for aperitivo hour. Don't stress. Keep it casual. Serve up some Campari (which is, sadly, no longer made using insect dyes) and simple, super-delicious bites like the ones below. You'll feel like Sophia Loren waiting for Marcello Mastroianni to whisk you away in a white convertible, en route to la dolce vita!

Aperitivo Crostini

Credit: Victor Protasio

Recipe: Try our Aperitivo Crostini for the perfect pairing!

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2021 issue. Get the magazine here