Some claim the idea of drinking small quantities of alcohol before dinner dates back to ancient Egypt. What we do know for sure is that the habit started in 1786, when a Mr. Carpano invented vermouth (a forebear of Martini) in Turin. Nowadays, in Italy, it has become a nearly daily ritual for many, especially when the weather cooperates and sitting outside is just too pleasant to forego. Bologna used to be filled with osterie, drinking dives mainly populated by old men discussing politics and sport and playing cards while imbibing. In the ‘80s, it became trendy for the younger generation to buy out aging owners and add some basic food and a wider drink selection, quickly attracting the young crowds that inhabit this university city.
Osterie stay open until the wee hours, usually until the last client has gone, and can vary from trendy eateries to gathering holes where people mingle, sing, play music and mate. A remnant of the good old days is Osteria del Sole, right in the heart of the downtown market, where the tables and benches haven’t changed in 100 years and some of the chairs are held together with duct tape. The wine is not great but the old men playing cards, alongside the preppy lawyers stopping by for a glass before heading home is a sight to behold. If you are really hungry, you are allowed to bring your food as long as you buy a glass or two.
But the city is also filled with bars that serve cappuccinos and croissants for breakfast and aperitivo starting at 6 pm. There are so many that, in order to attract and keep clients, the competition is based on what food is served with the drinks. It’s not a Campari or a Chardonnay anymore, it’s a drink and a swath of plates filled with all kind of edible goodies that put chips and olives to shame: miniature sandwiches, morsels of chicken tikka, tiny frittata, fruit, canapes, pizzas – you name it. It’s all built in the price of the drink, giving you the illusion of eating for free but, all things considered, if you are in a hurry, it’s a much cheaper alternative to dinner.
Around the city center, I couldn’t find a single place that wasn’t regurgitating with people, well past dinner time. My personal favourite, not because of the food, was the one right smack in the middle of Piazza Santo Stefano, where you can sit and watch the sun go down and hit the red brick facade of the church, people strolling by on the pebbled square and a police car idling to the sides, its “contents” standing around smoking a cigarette. They don’t seem too bothered by a car that enters the piazza illegally, screeches to a halt at the sight of the patrol car and then meekly heads off to a side street with nary a glance, let alone a ticket. In a society that is still fairly chauvinistic, if you are female and pretty it’s not so hard to talk your way out of most tickets.
I wonder why it doesn’t seem possible to replicate the laid back aperitivo experience in LA. We do have “happy hour” which is usually a rowdy and loud affair, standing at a counter. Large distances play a major role – here in Bologna, once work is over, nobody rushes off to the gym, to pick up the kids at day care, to run one last errand. The day is done, the weather is beautiful – everything else can wait.