It’s easy to be a frugal foodie in Italy. Food, for the most part, is pretty cheap. And wine, I noticed when I was living in Rome, was sometimes even cheaper than bottled water (though it should be noted that free drinking water is available from water fountains all over the city, so there’s no need to ever even buy water). When I moved back to NYC from Rome a couple of years ago, I realized that the Italian way of thinking about gastronomy had gotten to me. Simple, seasonal, fresh, and delicious food is both a basic principle and something to be celebrated there. Italians are passionate about eating and drinking; meals are rituals; and the way things are done matters. A mere 2 ounces of carelessly prepared espresso is sure to cause a fight at the bar; pasta cooked a moment past al dente is unforgivable.
One of my favorite, celebratory Italian foodie/drinky rituals is the aperitivo. It’s sort of the Italian equivalent to our American “happy hour” or the French aperitif, but rather than getting a little bowl of salted nuts or pretzels with your drink, you’re presented with a veritable buffet of Italian delights – for no extra charge. This can range from a modest antipasto of sliced meats, cheeses, bread, olives, and vegetables sotto aceto (under vinegar, a.k.a., pickled) to a feast of bruschetta, pizza, pasta, cous cous, grilled vegetables, fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies, marinated sardines, prosciutto with melon or figs, caprese salad, fresh fruit, and more, depending on which bar or enoteca you go to. It’s a fantastically frugal way to dine out (not that you’d actually want to miss out on a full Italian meal) or just to sample regional specialties – all for the price of a cocktail.
Prosecco is a classic aperitivo drink. If you’re not familiar with it, prosecco is a dry or off-dry Italian sparkling or semi-sparkling wine. Here in the U.S., it’s sometimes known as the poor man’s champagne, since at $9 to $35 a bottle, you can drink it on the cheap. It’s my aperitivo favorite and the inspiration for my deeming the early evening hours of aperitivo – 5 to 7 p.m. – prosecco o’clock. Campari drinks and cocktails with other Italian bitters (Amaro, Cinzano, Cynar) are also quite popular. And for some reason, so are mojitos, though they’re a long way from home.
If you’re lucky enough to be traveling to Rome and want to try the real thing, these are a few of my favorites places for aperitivo and an unadorned glass of prosecco:
Freni e Frizione
Via del Politeama 4-6 (near Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere)
Piazza Trilussa 41 (in Trastevere)
‘Gusto Wine Bar
Piazza Agusto Imperatore 9 (near Piazza di Spagna & Piazza del Popolo)
Hosting an aperitivo can be a fun and frugal way to spend a “happy” hour with friends. It’s an early evening event that requires nothing more than an alcoholic beverage and some nibbles – much less labor-intensive and also less costly than a full-fledged dinner party, and everyone is freed up afterward to go enjoy their dinner and other nightlife plans.
What You’ll Need:
- Prosecco – Ideally, your prosecco should be served in champagne flutes.
- Nibbles – You can pick up some tasty no-prep-required nibbles (prosciutto, salami, cheeses, olives, bread/crackers, sliced veggies, fruit, etc.) or prep some of your own small plates to serve. You could also host a potluck-style aperitivo and ask your guests to bring something to share (extra prosecco, if nothing else).
FRUGAL & FANCY
If you want to try your hand at a bit of mixology, you can take your bubbly to the next level by making prosecco cocktails. They may not be as artisanal as the ones concocted by expert mixologists, but they also won’t be as expensive. The great thing about prosecco is that it goes very well with many fruit and floral flavors.
Prosecco Juice Cocktails
- Fill ¼ of the flute with juice (or more, if you like) – orange, peach, berry, cherry, pomegranate, passion fruit, lychee – and fill the rest of the glass with prosecco.
- Garnish with fresh fruit, either on the rim or dropped into the glass.
Prosecco Cocktails with Fresh Fruit
- Muddle fresh fruit, such as raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blood orange, black cherries, grapefruit, star fruit, melon, plums (or even a cucumber), and fill ¼ to ½ of the flute with muddled fruit and its juice (or strain it so you just have the juice if you prefer your cocktail senza solids).
- Garnish, if you wish.
Prosecco Cocktails with Flavored Simple Syrup
- Make a simple syrup by boiling 1 part water and 1 part sugar until the sugar is dissolved. You may add chopped or crushed fruit, herbs (mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, or Japanese shiso), or other ingredients, like vanilla beans, ginger, lemon, lavender, or fennel to the syrup. Just be sure to strain the solids after they’ve served their flavoring purpose. Let syrup cool at room temperature or in the fridge.
- When syrup is cool, add it to prosecco according to your taste.
- Garnish, if you wish.
Prosecco Cocktails with Spirits
Fill ¼ of the flute with one of the following liqueurs/bitters/spirits and then fill the rest of the flute with prosecco:
- Cassis (currant flavored; used in French Kirs)
- St. Germain’s Elderflower
- Poire William (pear flavored)
- Chambord (blackberry flavored)
- Limoncello (lemon flavored; also lovely with a little rosemary simple syrup)
- Calvados (apple flavored; a little sweeter if you add a sugar cube)
- Cointreau (sweet & bitter orange; also nice with fresh-squeezed orange juice)
- Campari or Amaro (bitters from citrus peel; garnish with lemon peel; also refreshing with a little grapefruit juice)
I don’t know if anyone else does this (or would drink this), but a few summers ago, I decided to start adding teas that I’d brewed (and cooled) for iced tea to prosecco. It seemed to me that the delicate flavors of fruit, berry, and floral teas would result in a light and pleasant riff on the more traditional prosecco cocktail. I like it, but you’ll have to taste for yourself.
- Brew the tea. Let it cool, and then fill ¼ to ½ of the flute with tea and the rest with prosecco.
- Garnish with a sprig of mint.
Of course, if you want to get even more creative, you can experiment with any combination of juices, fruits, flavored simple syrups, spirits, or teas.
You can also make a big batch of prosecco punch from any champagne-based punch recipe or just fill a bowl with prosecco and a delicious combination of fruit juices (spirits optional). When I make punch, I usually prepare 2 kinds of oversized ice cubes to keep it cold. I make frozen juice cubes (so the punch doesn’t get too watery when the ice melts) and I also make regular ice cubes with berries and citrus slices frozen into them because they look pretty floating on top of the punch.
If you would like to share a favorite prosecco cocktail recipe or if you know of any other great aperitivo spots, please send them my way. Salute e cin cin, amici!