When I was just learning to cook, I planned a dinner party with what I’ve come to realize are my typically manic high expectations. You see, I invited 13 people over for a wintry sit-down dinner that included risotto with wild mushrooms (which needed to be stirred—without interruption—for 40 minutes and then served immediately) and gorgeous, fork-tender slabs of beef osso buco (which I braised for six hours). Which wines did I pair with these dishes? Well, that part was a no-brainer: I planned on pouring an earthy-spicy Barbaresco with the risotto and a bold, juicy Amarone with the beef. That was the easy part. The hard part was the cocktail hour, which—like everything else I was planning for the evening—I hoped would make a big impression.
I offered my guests shimmering pools of auburn-colored Maker’s Mark manhattans, which I served in those enormous martini glasses that hold about a half-gallon. I filled them so high there wasn’t a millimeter of space at the rim. Everyone loved them. We toasted, sipped, and devoured slice after slice of pillow-high focaccia slathered in marinara and fresh mozzarella. “Another round? I’ll leave a new pitcher of them here while I get the risotto started,” I said to my utterly contented company. Forty minutes later when I called my guests to the table for the main attraction, practically every one of them was either tipsy or flat-out trashed. One had fallen asleep on the couch.
Needless to say, most of my friends just played with their risotto and slurred compliments until I gave up and scraped the bowls into the trash. As for the osso buco, I think I ate it for lunch and dinner for a week and a half. I vowed to serve iced tea at all future dinner party cocktail hours.
Now, before you decline an invitation to dinner chez moi, you should know that I have not banned alcohol before dinner but, rather, have discovered the art of apéritifs—or aperitivi if you watch Molto Mario. These are light alcoholic drinks enjoyed before a meal that are meant to stimulate the appetite, not drown it.
I first encountered these palate teasers, of course, in Europe, where in countries including France, Italy, and Spain an apéritif is much more than a drink—it’s a transition from the workday to play time. On recent trips to Paris and Rome, I learned that while many bars promote American-style “happy hours” (even advertised in English), French and Italian cocktail hours are really more about sipping a drink, nibbling a few salty-savory snacks, and engaging in lively conversation. You know what’s best about these Euro “eppy ow-airs”? Most people are really happy not to get drunk before dinner.
Traditionally, in France and Italy, apéritifs are fortified or aromatized wines made in a vermouth style, such as Lillet Blanc and Campari, along with Byrrh (a blend of quinine and red wine), Pernod (anise-licorice), and Amer Picon (orange-bitter). In Spain the classic aperitivo is sherry—ranging in style from bone-dry fino to crisp, nutty amontillado—sipped while snacking on plates of tapas. To be fair, just as the word “martini” is often used to describe anything served in a triangle-shaped stem glass, the term “apéritif” (or aperitivo) now generally refers to any predinner drink. That means your possibilities are endless.
Another benefit of apéritifs is how relatively simple they are to serve. In the case of aromatized wines, you pour them as you would regular wine, with the exception that it’s absolutely permitted to do so over ice. Sometimes these are cut with club soda or quinine to make them even lighter and more refreshing. Other apéritifs are easily assembled, like the bellini (made with peach purée, sugar, and prosecco), or the kir, made by stirring a teaspoon of crème de cassis into a glass of dry white wine. Could it get any simpler? Not really, though now that the warm weather brings fresh fruit, why not use a purée of fresh raspberries in that kir instead of crème de cassis? Or replace the plain white wine with something bubbly? Heck, you can use just about any fruit and mix it with sparkling wine to make a refreshing apéritif.
That’s exactly what Dan Mathieu does when he’s throwing a party. “You could purée any fruit—mango, watermelon, peaches, anything fresh—add vodka and a splash of soda, and you’ve got a refreshing apéritif,” says Mathieu, co-owner of the Boston catering company Max Ultimate Food. What about vodka? “Vodka plays a neutral role to kick it up a bit but not knock you over,” he says. “We’ve also been serving a lot of martinis made with limoncello [a sweet, lemon-flavored Italian spirit that packs refreshing acidity], which tend to be lighter than real martinis. We add soda to them to lighten them up, or fresh ginger, or even candied ginger.”
Paula Welte, event manager for Jules Catering in Somerville, says, “Most clients will ask my opinion about what to serve before dinner, and I tell them that you want something that serves as a precursor to dinner, not something heavy. I don’t think martinis are a good idea. Predinner hour is more like high tea time: You should serve a dry sherry to get the appetite going.”
Emma Roberts, owner of Capers Catering, is all about the apéritif. “I think apéritifs are much more elegant,” she says. “Cocktails are harsh and brash. Apéritifs are romantic and old-fashioned—and new because they’re so old.” Roberts loves Lillet, which she pegs as “the new chic drink.” I have to agree: I threw a dinner party recently and three guests showed up with bottles of it.
Roberts says that for spring and summer weddings she likes to suggest any apéritif that includes sparkling wine—a signature drink named after the bride, for example—served in old-fashioned saucer-shaped champagne glasses. “I love serving in a coupe because it feels like Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” she says. “It makes you want to take out the silver platter you got at your wedding, polish it up, and serve cheese and crackers, salted nuts, olives, and caviar—but you don’t want to overdo it.” No, I don’t, which is why, nowadays, I hold that focaccia for tomorrow’s lunch.