Aperitivo. n. Language: Italian. Meaning: A bit of food along with your drink designed to whet your appetite before dinner. Or, BE your dinner, if you have no shame and/or you’re not quite as rich as the Pope.
I thought Granada, Spain was the peak of gluttony heaven. There, you’re served a free tapa–sometimes a small piece of tortilla, sometimes a full-on hamburger and fries–with every drink.
But during my trip through Italy over the holidays, I discovered the Italian aperitivo, where you’re met with not one measly tapa per drink, but a full-on unlimited buffet of food.
Except this is Italy, land of Versace and Valentino, and even occasions for gluttony must be met with style and class. If only someone had told me that in Florence, when I attempted to gorge myself at the aperitivo—alone.
Florence is Awesome, I Suppose
The day started out like any other spent vacationing through Italy: Sipping thimble-sized espressos, seeing old things, admiring colorful buildings, trying to not spend all my cash at focaccia stands. (It’s about bread, not gelato, for me.)
My dear friend and travel companion Amalia and I set off to explore Florence for a few hours before she had to work as a flight attendant with Vueling airlines. We covered the usual sights—the Duomo, the (fake) statue of David, the leather market, Ponte Vecchio. Florence, the picturesque Tuscan city everyone already falls in love with, was even more romantic at Christmastime.
If you’re looking for a city guide or the 10 Best List of Florence, this isn’t it. Google is your best friend in that case. High school sophomores could do a better job than I could at detailing the art history of the place, the influences of the Medici family, or what’s inside the Uffizi. I did once read the 700+ page book The Agony and the Ecstasy, all about Michelangelo, during a more motivated time in my life. Florence comes up quite a bit. My knowledge ends there. (Hey, we all have our areas of interest, right?)
I warned you this would be a post about how not to dine, because that, it seems, is all the expertise I have to offer on the subject. Not even knowledge on how to dine correctly, mind you; just what not to do. So I’ll skip over my five hours walking around the charming city, under the guise of “taking it all in” but with the real intention of working up an appetite. All in the name of the all-important aperitivo for which, at 11 o’clock in the morning, I was already up in the hotel room Googling which bars in Florence offered the best spreads. Ten minutes after finishing my breakfast buffet. #Priorities.
Amalia left for work around noon and wouldn’t be back till midnight. Therein lies the problem. I am all for exploring a city alone, and I have very few reservations about dining alone, actually. But there is a time and a place—an old swanky bar where the retirees won’t judge; a vegan raw restaurant where everyone else there couldn’t convince a friend to try out the menu either.
The Italian aperitivo is not one such occasion.
At 7:00 on the dot, right when aperitivo begins, this hungry American entered Zoe, a top hit on Google for its generous spread. If you’re going to be a glutton, at least do the research.
I sheepishly asked the waiter, in broken Italian, if she spoke English, and her glare suggested we were already getting off on the wrong foot. Such a shame, since the buffet behind her was being decadently laid out, and I could use the least amount of judgement I could get before diving in. I ordered an Italian margherita (the pizza and the drink are both spelled with ‘h’s—that’s no typo.) Then I just stood there awkwardly before throwing all my shame to the wind and asking, “So, um, how does this work?”
The (Mis)Workings of the Italian Aperitivo
I just didn’t know the rules, you guys. Were those little coffee saucers the actual plates? In the U.S. they feed us all-you-can-eat buffets on trash can lids. It’s not a time for etiquette, it’s a time to rise to the challenge and get the job done. At this Italian aperitivo, how would I fit more than three bites of faro salad on that thing? And what’s more, could I dig in before my drink arrived? I’d been working up to this for the past five hours for the love of God.
The waitress shot me a pitiful glance and said that, sure, go ahead and start. So I filled the palm-sized plate with some pasta salads and little mushroom puff pastries and mini sandwiches. Then I shuffled my way to a table way in the back, because I was so painfully aware of my misfit presence in this chic establishment. My blonde hair shouted foreigner from the beginning. Then my English. Arriving at 7:00 on the dot. Eyeing the buffet. I could tell what these waiters were thinking: “Bring the chefs back in from their smoke break. The glutton’s come to feast.”
And come she would have, if not for those damn saucers. Because the thing is with these Italian aperitivi: You may have planned to be a glutton. You may have been prepared to cast all shame aside and think HELL YES, I will take advantage of this unique dining tradition to get my fill for the night, no matter how sad and lonely the situation may look. But in the end your pride gets to you, mostly because the buffet is set up at the bar right in front of a particularly attractive Italian bartender mixing drinks, and it’s probably not on accident that you must face him as you layer up your food. And sure, theoretically you could take two plates back with you–you’ve got the hands to do it. And theoretically you don’t care what people think of you—you’re a kick-ass solo traveler! But in the end your embarrassment forces you into eating a normal Italian-person amount, which, it turns out, is how they look good in Gucci in the first place. You go back for seconds, but not thirds, because the popular hashtag #NoShame is actually sort of a lie.
So I sipped my lonely cocktail in the corner of the bar, well aware that I was one of two patrons in the place, because people in the know show up at a later hour, and with company. I took out my go-to Moleskin journal to try and look like I had a purpose—artsy writer comes to Florence, jots down important notes about the city, “Ponte Vecchio really a metaphor for solo female travel; Michelangelo may have self-esteem issues”—but really I was writing a diary entry. Which actually I’m using now for notes to write this post.
“So fucking embarrassed. Stacked plate too high, so mini sandwich fell to the ground while walking to my table. Stuffing my face with rigatoni and some sub-par mushroom puffs that I obviously still want seconds and thirds of. Because they’re free. I think I’d rather be starving in my hotel room. Aperitivo = GROUP ACTIVITY.”
Zoe’s spread, if not the best-tasting food I’ve ever had, was truly quite nice. There was an assortment of pasta salads, puff pastry bites, some mini sandwiches, your typical finger food, all for a drink price of 8 euros—not bad. But after a quick round two, I got the hell out of there, uttering a muffled “buona sera” and avoiding eye contact with the dreamy bartender on the way out.
You’re always going to stick out a bit when you travel—it’s just the nature of the game. You are who you are and it’s OK to be a little different. Stop short of pairing white socks with Tevas, and you’ll normally be fine.
If your goal is not to come off as a sad sack in Italy, however, I’d stay clear of the solo aperitivo. I’m a champion of distinct travel styles and independent vagabonding, but even I see a bit of sadness in stuffing your face with a free buffet in the corner table, alone.
You can all thank me for figuring this out the hard way, so you don’t have to.
P.S. The buffets may be big but the cars are really really small.