A sneaky way to eat on the cheap in Italy (and score a drink)

Okay, so I knew the food was going to be amazing here in the ‘boot’ country. But no one really prepared me for it. What makes me anxious and excited at the same time is that there are still so many places I have to visit in the next six months! How do I say no to all this deliciousness going on around me? I’ve now made a deal with myself to run 2km for every bowl of pasta, every slice of pizza and every gelato. So Comrades, I’ll be ready for you when I get back to SA.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for my health) food and drinks can be expensive – especially in Milan. I didn’t realise it straight away, it always takes me a while to figure out what is expensive and what not in a new place and in a different currency.

I remember a friend who had lived in Milan for a little while telling me about something called ‘aperitivo’. In a nutshell, how to eat ‘for free’ when you buy a drink at a bar. Now, we all know that mostly nothing in this life comes for free or even cheap for that matter. Unless it’s ‘Made in China’ of course. So I didn’t think too much of it at first. If you’re a regular traveller to Italy, apologies for boring you with these details, but I just think it’s the best thing since Jared Leto’s Man Bun. Especially if you’re trying (or forced) to stick to a budget.

How does it work?

Most bars in Italy offer aperitivo – traditionally a pre-dinner drink and snack – between 7-9pm. Usually you’d pay a set price for any drink and then you have the green light to dig into the food. Most places ask a little bit more for the drink in order to compensate for the snacks that’s included. The food selection varies from place to place but you could find anything ranging from fresh salads and cheeses, to cold meats, a variety of bread snacks, pastas, pizzas, or potato chips and olives. Having evolved from merely pre-dinner drinks and snacks, it seems as though most bars have become so proud of their delectable aperitivo spreads that you’d often have no space for dinner after you dug into the various snacks on offer.

Image via www.urbanpost.it
A typical aperitivo spread. Unfortunately I haven’t managed to take a photo of one I’ve been to. I blame it on the food being a distraction. Image credit www.urbanpost.it

The first time I went for an aperitivo was in Ticinese in Milan. I ordered a Cosmopolitan for €6 and being a newbie at this, I waited for the stale bread aka ‘free food’ to appear from somewhere. I would have even settled for a few peanuts if I had to because, you know, it was ‘free food’… And everyone knows you don’t eat free peanuts in a bar. Eeuw.

Don’t judge me. Coming from a media background I’ve been trained to love freebies – be it food or sample creams. Then I spotted it: in front of the window on the other side of the bar was a long table with a huge selection of snacks to choose from. And I could have as much as I wanted. Wait, what?

In Milan you can expect to pay between €5 and €15, once again depending on the type of bar and snacks on offer. In smaller towns – like I’ve seen in Veneto, for example – you’d pay a humble €2-5 at some places. There are exceptions as well in Milan like Ostello Bello for example which is a hostel in central Milan offering cheap aperitivo from €4 (depending on your choice of drink). What you’ll also get there is a bunch of internationals which means interesting convos, great quality food and wine and a fantastic, lively vibe.

I can imagine if I was a student in Milan I’d probably abuse this deal – we all know a student’s budget. I often found myself in the middle of the month with no money left and lived off a gigantic pack of fruit puffs for three weeks. Point being, a student needs a good deal, and often ‘cannot not afford not to go out’. Aperitivo solves this problem. If you’re broke, you can simply throw a line: ‘I’ve got so much studying to do… but how about I meet you guys for a quick aperitivo?’ This way you seem on top of your social game – you are “pushing some precious hours of studying aside to see your friends”. In reality you’re going to stack your little aperitivo plate and go back for seconds or even thirds before it’s time to go “study again”.

So if you’re looking to pinch your pennies and still have a nice dinner, somewhat of a social life, and be a part of the vibrant Italian culture, aperitivo is your answer.

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