Having drinks, (or aperitivo, as it is called in Italy) before dinner has been a common practice in Italy since the 19th century. Originally it was a drink that had a bitterness (in Italian, amaro means bitter) to it, which was thought to stimulate the appetite. Nowadays the bitterness from say campari or aperol is cut with prosecco or replaced altogether by a sparkling or dry white wine.
The other change happened in the 1970’s when tidbits of food began to appear alongside your drink. In Italy this can be anything from peanuts and potato chips to more elaborate fare such as salted cod mousse or cured meats on thin pieces of baguette bread.
After spending three months in Italy before arriving in Venice, having an aperitif before dinner was something I really looked forward to. It was a glorious way to end the work day and signal the beginning of an evening which would hopefully involve delicious drinks in worthwhile company, and of course, tasty food.
I cannot take credit for finding this tiny gem of a place in the middle of a city that has literally hundreds of restaurants, bars and enoteche to choose from. My friend Christopher was responsible for leading our merry band to Gia Schiavi which lay in the Dorsoduro area of the city which is a little off the tourist-ridden beaten path.
When we arrived we joined a loud and happy mob hanging out by the canal wall opposite the bar, which was also knee-deep in hungry and thirsty people. Apparently they had figured out what I was just discovering, and that was this: the city of Venice is beautiful beyond imagining and I had been gasping in awe all day, mesmerized by the ornate architecture, the enormous splendor of San Marco square, and the constant blue, green canal water flowing under my feet and beside me. This city wanted something in return, not just respect and gratitude: it wanted my money.
Up to now socializing in Italy had been affordable, from coffee in the morning to meeting my friends for aperitivo before dinner. My last stop Venice, was a whole different story. Everything here was triple the cost of anywhere else, from a hotel room to a Margherita pizza. I have to say I did not really resent the Venetians for this. I did not think they were taking advantage of my poor tourist-self, or being greedy. They were making me pay for their engineering ingenuity, for building a wonderous city literally in water, for draining that water and driving thousands of wooden pilings into the mud, leveling the top and building on top of the new flat surface, for building a huge wall on the eastern side of the city to protect it from the sea, and prevent easy access for fortune seekers.
Anyway, this was my way of justifying what seemed like daylight robbery. The folks at Gia Schiavi must have missed that meeting when this price-hike was enforced, because for about 3 or so euros I could enjoy a couple of pieces of bread piled high with baccalà mantecato (salted cod fish mousse) with my glass of aperol spritz.
We returned to that same spot each evening of our stay and were even entertained one night by a couple of hungry seagulls who swooped down and made off with the tasty snacks of fellow wall-dwellers, exciting stuff.