In a kingdom where fashion is king and wispy models are its princesses, the all-you-can-eat buffet is the last kind of dining experience that you'd expect to find. Yet the two coexist in blissful harmony, for Milan is the home of the aperitivo -- a tradition that raises the buffet to a new level.
Aperitivo -- the rich uncle of America's happy hour -- is the beloved Milanese tradition of pre-dinner drinks accompanied by complimentary stuzzichini, or appetizers.
Derived from the Latin aperitivus -- "to open" -- aperitivo is meant to stimulate the appetite and tease the taste buds, previewing the delights of dinner.
Think of them as an Italian version of the nosh.
Spreads can range from modest olives, cheeses and potato chips to awe-inspiring pastas, pizza, bruschetta, meats, sautéed vegetables and fruit salads. Drinks come with unlimited admission to the food bar.
The aperitivo begins at about 6 or 7 p.m., and lasts for several hours. As little as one drink -- alcoholic or not -- can be your ticket to the best-kept secret in Italy.
Though you can easily make a free dinner of aperitivo, the real challenge is to learn to act like the Milanese, who delicately graze through the line, giving the food the respect it deserves.
As an American amazed by the delicious food and blindsided by the dismal exchange rate, I was not so sophisticated. My fellow expats and I would dash to the buffet table as soon as the waitress walked away with our drink order, and return with our hands guarding our heaps of food, poised to catch the last piece of focaccia from falling.
The Milanese, in their crisp and stylish work attire, would watch us with amusement as they nibbled the vegetables and cheeses.
Keeping the Title
Of course, they've had time to perfect their technique. Aperitivo is a well-established Italian tradition, particularly in the north. By the 1920s, Milan was known as "the capital of aperitivo."
Bar-goers sipped Campari or similar bitters, accompanied by olives or nuts. In subsequent years, both the food and drink selections expanded, although aperitif liquors -- bitters, prosecco, martinis and white wine -- remain the most popular choices. However, the social essence of aperitivo has stayed pretty much the same.
"Aperitivo offers a moment of relaxation at the end of a day at work, where you can allow yourself the pleasure of conversation paired with the pleasure of good food," explains Grazia Mannozzi, author and professor at the University of Insubria, near Milan. "It is especially successful due to the pleasant climate of our country, and the Italian passion for socializing."
At Jewish homes, it would be called "the nosh" to tide you over.
Mannozzi goes to aperitivo about once a week, but says she knows of many people who go far more frequently ("especially those without children to make dinner for," she added).
"It's certainly a traditional part of the work day [or school day] for lots of Milanese, both young and old," said Jenna Walker, a young Italian professional who moved to Milan after studying in the United States. "It's a great way to wind down at the end of the day, on the way home from university or work, either with colleagues or to catch up with friends you haven't seen in a while."
Aperitivo has spread all throughout Italy, and has cousins in Switzerland, France, Austria, Germany and even Israel.
But Milan won't relinquish its title without a fight.