Charcuterie, who? The French aren’t the only ones to have mastered the art of curated food boards.
Ordering a drink with dinner is a cross-cultural norm, but what about getting an entire dinner with your drink?
One of Italy’s best kept secrets is the apericena: a derivative of the better known aperitivo, which typically presents the likes of potato chips and peanuts alongside your drink of choice. Born in the 18th century, aperitivo was a means of whetting the appetite before indulging in a multi-course meal while the modern-day version goes beyond snacks to offer a little more substance.
Literally translating to “dinner aperitivo,” apericena doubles as a complete meal. For an average price of 12 euros per person, you’ll get a platter of regional cheeses, meats, finger foods and even pasta served alongside your drink – a price that would barely cover a cocktail in most major cities, never-mind a night out with friends.
Clearly, Italians do it best. And while you may not be have access to regional specialties if you live abroad, like real San Marzano tomatoes or Sicilian ricotta, we’ve come up with a few easy tips to host your own Italian apericena at home.
Bars tend to serve apericena around 6 or 7pm – a mealtime earlier than typical Italian dinners. While your apericena doesn’t need to follow an exact time frame, serve drinks before presenting the food board to your guests. This will help set a leisurely tone – apericena tends to be drawn out, each food item as much a shared experience as it is a conversation starter.
An apericena is incredibly versatile and like all convivial activities, should be a relaxed affair. In Italy, t-shirt clad families sit near clusters of after-school teens, while laurel-wreathed graduates celebrate alongside spritz-sipping fashionistas. Dressing for the night depends entirely on you, and that is the Italian way.
Before you begin planning your menu, you’ll want a head count. Bars portion apericena foods per person, which not only minimizes leftovers but guarantees that everyone can try each item on the board. This format also makes it easy on the host, letting you know exactly how much you’ll need to prepare. Once you finalize the guest list, it’s time to bring out a wooden board (we love these ones handmade from olive wood in Cilento).
While Italians opt for wine at the dinner table, an apericena is all about cocktails.
For aperol lovers, a spritz is a classic. Not only is it the easiest drink to order when in Italy, but it’s also the simplest option for an at-home bar. With only four ingredients – aperol, prosecco, ice, and seltzer – it’s almost too easy to make your guests, and yourself, another. If you’re feeling fancy, garnish with an orange slice. You can easily swap out the aperol for campari if you prefer bitter flavors.
If you’re looking for a little more cheer (ahem: something stronger), an Italian negroni packs the most punch. Equal parts gin, campari, and vermouth, it’s a drink that practically begs for dinner to follow. Gajàrdo Bitter, an artisanal Italian bitter distillery, has created a line of bottled cocktails to make hosting easier than ever.
If cocktails aren’t your thing, opt for a pack of Peroni beer or a bottle of Franciacorta. Bubbles just feel more festive, don’t they?
Here’s where regional variances come into play, and you can create your board around personal tastes, dietary restrictions, and seasonal ingredients. The beauty of hosting this style of meal is having the freedom to get as creative or simple as you prefer.
One idea is to go local with a focus on fresh, in-season ingredients. Don’t worry about finding Italian specialties; keeping things local is undeniably Italian, even if the ingredients taste a little different. And by shopping for a few ready-to-eat ingredients, you’ll save yourself time. You can plate cold cuts from your neighborhood deli beside roasted winter squash for a December-worthy platter.
But for bonafide Italophiles dreaming of their next trip, why not hone in on your favorite city’s culinary specialities? If you’re fantasizing about a Calabrian getaway, stock your board with spicy sausage and Tropea onion-topped bruschetta. Do you find yourself scrolling through far too many photos of your last trip to Florence? Try your hand at homemade focaccia and lathering it with truffle oil.
Regardless of the route you take, a few staples are not to be missed. As a bonus, you can even turn the apericena into a potluck, putting each guest in charge of one food.
- Bread: No Italian meal begins without a carb which is essential for enjoying meats and cheeses. Serve crunchy breadsticks in a narrow jar or Pugliese taralli in a bowl. Small slices of Italian bread are also great (with or without toppings).
- Meats and Cheeses: A good rule of thumb is two meats and two cheeses per guest. The type is entirely up to you, though flavorful porchetta makes for a special, festive offering. No need to worry if you have vegetarians attending your party. Simple swap out the meat for an extra piece of cheese or add pickled vegetables. Sun-dried tomatoes or artichokes add a salty kick.
- Pasta: In Palermo, pasta is often the centerpiece of apericena and served in one big bowl. Pasta is easy to make for a large group and bound to be enjoyed by all – but it’s best to keep the pasta shape short for ease of serving. Farfalle, ruote and orecchiette are all great varieties to serve (and fun for the eyes!).
- Sandwiches: Tramezzini, piadine, cicchetti – oh my. Consider serving tea-sized sandwiches made with your favorite fillings. Every region of Italy has its favorite panino combination so look up your dream town for inspiration. If you can’t decide, opt for prosciutto and mozzarella, tuna salad or grilled veggies with a slice of cheese.
- Fritti: In Sicily, arancine (fried rice balls) are practically an apericena institution. And while they’re not necessarily easy to make at home, there are lots of other fried goodies you can stack on your board. Many apericena plates include a bowl of french fries, potato chips and mozzarella in carrozza – Italy’s version of mozzarella sticks.
- Extras: Is your board still looking a little sparse? Fill two miniature bowls with olives and peanuts to pay homage to the original aperitivo snacks. Not only will you get your salt fix, but you’ll round off a board as packed as your table.
Conceived as a pre-dinner meal or dinner replacement, the apericena often overlooks dessert – letting savory finger foods shine. On the off-chance a board includes un dolce, it tends to treat the treat as an afterthought, like a palate cleanser before post-dinner espresso.
So if you choose to include dessert, you’ll want to offer only one option and display it on the board from the get-go, right alongside the savory foods. This all-in-one format makes hosting a breeze, letting you enjoy your last few bites without rushing back to the kitchen for another course. Because the dessert will sit out for some time, it’s best to focus on baked sweets rather than something that needs to be refrigerated. Dried biscotti are great and perfect for dipping in a sweet vin santo dessert wine – and for the holidays, you can’t go wrong with panettone. This sweet bread is flavored with orange and raisins and easy to cut into slices or chunks to serve a crowd.
While you’re at it, save yourself that last trip to the kitchen by skipping the coffee in favor of your Italian liquor. Amaretto, ragazzi? Salute!