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Apéritifs in NYC: Where to drink like a European

You don’t have to fly across the Atlantic to drink like you’re in Milan or Paris.

The apéritif, a light alcoholic drink meant to stimulate your appetite — think Lillet, Aperol, Campari and even vermouth — has become an increasingly common fixture on New York City cocktail menus in the last decade. These dry, aromatic and bittersweet drinks are a staple of post-work gatherings in Europe and, let’s be honest, they’re a decidedly more civilized way to enjoy happy hour than dollar beers or well liquor specials. The French word apèritif (the Italians call it aperitivo) derives from the Latin for “to open,” and in this case it refers to the drinker’s appetite. It connotes a time of day — a pre-dinner gathering with friends and snacks — almost as much as type of alcohol.

“I think it’s just a great way to not end your day, but to start your night,” said Rachel Allswang, co-owner of Le Garage in Bushwick.

So whether you’re looking for a classic experience like an Aperol spritz served with a spread of Italian appetizers, or an American twist that incorporates apéritif liqueurs into complex cocktails, here are five bars and restaurants where you can class up your late afternoon imbibing.

Le Garage

Allswang's mother is French and her father is
Photo Credit: Jillian Pellegrino

Allswang's mother is French and her father is American, so it's no surprise the cocktail menu at her restaurant is "based on French apéritifs, with a twist."

Her drinks are named for French women who made history, and the Coco Chanel -- with gin, lavender-infused St. Germain and sparkling wine -- is a nice way to ease into the herbaceous flavor of an apéritif. If you're feeling more adventurous, try the Marie Curie -- made of green chartreuse (a French liqueur), pepper-infused Dolin Dry (a vermouth) and celery bitters.

And if you'd like to try an apéritif spirit on its own, Allswang recommends pastis, an anise-flavored classic.

"It's just very, very refreshing, and it's something that you drink in the summer when you're near the sea with some ice cubes and some water," she said. "It just makes you think of vacation, and that's what apéritif is -- it's time off." (Le Garage, 157 Suydam St., Brooklyn, 347-295-1700,


While American happy hours are defined by cheap
Photo Credit: Jillian Pellegrino

While American happy hours are defined by cheap booze, at Italian aperitivo hours patrons typically sip full-priced drinks -- but along with them, they get to enjoy complimentary snacks ranging from simple chips or olives to elaborate spreads big enough make a meal.

At the bar at Emporio in NoLiTa, you can get the best of both worlds -- a handful of discounted drinks are served alongside an array of Italian delicacies every weekday from 5 to 6:30 p.m. A recent offering included house-made focaccia bread, mixed olives, slivers of pizza with crushed red pepper, baked polenta cubes and slices of mortadella.

"I think it's about the energy," wine director Nico Contenta said about what makes a great aperitivo hour. "Good snacks and good drinks are always a plus. But the main thing is the energy."

Among the classic drinks his restaurant serves up for aperitivo hour is the simple but lovely Aperol spritz -- made with the popular, bright orange rhubarb-flavored apéritif in its name -- discounted to $8 at happy hour. Or splurge on a full-priced Negroni, made here with Greenhook gin, Campari and Carpano Antica vermouth, a cocktail that Contenta believes New York actually does better than Italy.

"We kind of obsess over things in New York. We're kind of perfectionists, whereas in Italy it's something they've been doing for so long they don't think about it," Contenta said. "But in New York, there's a huge cocktail culture, so the bartenders are thinking: 'How can we possibly make the best Negroni?'" (Emporio, 231 Mott St., Manhattan, 212-966-1234,


While vermouth and Campari are familiar cocktail ingredients,
Photo Credit: Will Elliott of Sauvage

While vermouth and Campari are familiar cocktail ingredients, bar director Will Elliott has been digging up forgotten apéritifs for his cocktail list at Sauvage, the younger sibling of Brooklyn oyster and cocktail hotspot Maison Premiere.

Among them is Kina l'Aero d'Or, an apéritif wine made with the bittering root quinine, best known to drinkers as an ingredient in tonic water and to doctors as an old anti-malarial drug. At Sauvage, he's serving it up as a Kina Collins, with Blume Marillen apricot eau-de-vie (an apricot brandy), lemon and lemon cordial, served with a gooseberry garnish.

"There's something, usually, very casual about an aperitivo. It's something you could, and probably should, do at home," he said. "I want to transcend the category a little bit -- make it a little more mature and realized."

Some people balk at the lower alcohol content in apéritif drinks when they're paying for them at a bar, but Elliott said he thinks American imbibing is coming full-circle to focus more on complex flavors and less on the buzz.

"Once you realize that you like those flavors, it really is a rabbit-hole moment," Elliott said. "They really make an impression on you, and you spend a lot of time trying to sort of reclaim that and find that high again." (Sauvage, 905 Lorimer St., Brooklyn, 718-486-6816,

Amor y Amargo

If you're looking to revel in the bitter
Photo Credit: Jillian Pellegrino

If you're looking to revel in the bitter aspect of apèritifs, this tiny Lower East Side "bitters tasting room" with 190 types of Italian amaro liquors behind the bar is the spot for you. While amaro is the Italian word for bitter, don't let it intimidate you -- all amari are actually bittersweet, beverage director Sother Teague explained, differentiating them from tincture bitters.

"You wouldn't have a glass of Angostura bitters prior to lunch," he said. "But a glass of Campari is delightful."

Some kinds of amari are more popular as an after-dinner drink, but Teague explained there really isn't a difference between an apéritif and a digestif -- both are bitter spirits that stimulate the stomach. Before dinner, that makes you hungry; after, it helps you digest. At Amor y Amargo, they're typically mixed into cocktails like the Zuma Beach, dreamed up by bartender Max Green. It combines Bols Genever gin with the aperitivo Cocchi Rosa, the amaro Montenegro and Cockspur rum.

But Teague would also like to see Americans approach a spirit like Montenegro, which like many aperitifs has a secret and centuries-old ingredient list, more like the Europeans -- who typically let the flavor stand on its own.

"If we're going to take something that's been made for over 1,000 years and add something to it," he wondered, "are we really adding something to it?" (443 E. 6th St., Manhattan, 212-614-6818,

Gastroteca Astoria

What could be better than an Italian aperitivo
Photo Credit: Gastroteca Astoria

What could be better than an Italian aperitivo hour? An Italian aperitivo hour that's actually four hours. Every Monday to Friday from 4 to 8 p.m., a cocktail from the aperitivo menu at Gastroteca Astoria gets you some of their Italian-spiced popcorn on the house. A full-price cocktail comes with "fancier" complimentary fare like crostini topped with pesto, manager Jordan Brettholz said. When the weather is nice, the large front windows are thrown open, lending a sidewalk cafe vibe.

"It's just very inviting. It's very reminiscent of being in Italy," she said.

While free snacks are a traditional Italian feature of an aperitivo hour, the bartenders are always putting a modern spin on their drinks -- combining flavors that "you would not expect to work" but that, together, make "something entirely new that you weren't expecting," Brettholz said.

"We're very on the edge, but staying in touch with the Italian roots by using Italian liquors and the apéritifs," she said. (Gastroteca Astoria, 33-02 34th Ave., Astoria, 718-729-9080,


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