14 April 2011

Aperitivo: A Love/Hate Relationship

It began in Italy, about a month ago. Literally the moment we crossed the border from Slovenia into Fruili-Venezia Guilia, we met Aperitivo. Too used to five or six o'clock dinners in short-days-Moldova, we had a few hours to kill before settling down for a meal. So, we ordered some drinks at a bar. With our first glass of wine, we were given peanuts and potato chips. Our second order brought finger sandwiches and our third, bruschetta. Early dinner after all! For the next two weeks, we ruined many an appetite (but saved many a euro) with aperitivo. If we stayed in a town for more than a day, we'd find ourselves referring to bars according to their offerings. "Where do you want to go for a drink? Popcorn Place or Pistachio Cafe?" Things were kicked up a notch in San Marino, though...
It turns out that, like Italians, Sammarinese people really like their drink snacks. However, they have a slightly different method of going about it. Around noon, bowls of olives, chips and nuts are set up on the corner of a bar. That way, if you came in for a drink, you can toothpick yourself a little snack. At around five, sandwiches that went unsold that day (my assumption) are cut up and stacked onto plates. Sometime after that, a fresh pizza will come out of the oven and join the aperitivo buffet. Somehow, eating a free dinner of potato chips has lost its romantic edge for us. So, early on in the country, we decided to sit at a table instead of subjecting ourselves to temptation at the bar.
But Aperitivo would follow! The bartender would inevitably come on over with a big smile and plate loaded with snacks. Now it was not only more difficult to stop ourselves from eating it, but we were having a much larger share of it than if we'd been sampling from the general pool. It's a small country, so we've revisited certain cafes over and over. When, upon our fifth visit to Garden Restaurant Merlin ordered our pre-dinner wine "and please no peanuts," the very friendly waitress smiled and laughed. And then brought us a bowl of peanuts.
The only feasible solution to this dilemma was to just start drinking at home (meaning in our tent or at a picnic table). The first barrier was to figure out a way to have a cold drink, when wine is sold unfrigerated, ice isn't sold at all and it's ranged from 60 - 80degrees most days. We filled up a pot with cold well water and set our Sammarinese frizzante inside. As we waited, we missed/longed for Aperitivo. From that time forward, we planned ahead. Piado with a slice of cheese, a cherry tomato and a fresh leaf of basil goes down a lot lighter than a cube of foccaccia. Picking up some marinated artichokes from a deli was an even quicker, easier method of aperitivo-ing we often employed.
Other times, we strayed from the usual drink snack fare altogether and went full-on Camp. In our two weeks in San Marino, we consumed two cans of King Oscar sardines (the best sardines on the planet) and this absolutely delicious can of sprats from Riga recommended by Merlin's uncle. We're not sure how he procures these Latvian sprats in Vermont, but being as we brought our King Oscars over here from America, we appreciate and understand how one would go to great lengths for the perfect can of fish.
With our homemade variety, we got back in touch with the real meaning of aperitivo - spurring one's appetite awake before dinner as opposed to completely killing it from the inside out. Three countries from now, or possibly even sooner, I can see myself at a bar drinking something other than an Aperol Spritz. Most likely a beer. I will turn to my right and wish I saw my old friend Aperitivo at the corner of the bar. I may even wind up ordering badly made martinis so that I can ask for extra olives. But for now, I am glad to leave this period of classy junk food behind me.

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