The Art of Aperitivo
Written by Molly McAnany
The word aperitivo is relative to the American happy hour but, in Italy, means much more. Aperitivo is a routine, the place you always go for a nightcap with friends after finishing a long day at work. The aperitivo is the first drink of the evening, the one that marks the end of the day yet reminds you the night is still young. Luckily for those of us unable to catch a flight to Italy this spring, Aperitivo is Santa Barbara’s newest spot for an authentic Italian dining experience. Located on Haley Street, Aperitivo’s patio views are splendid, extending past the terracotta tile buildings of State Street and into the hills of the Santa Ynez mountains. This is the quaint Italian bistro of your European daydreams where friends you treat to a few aperitifs will ask, how did you find this place?
Andrea Girardello, co-owner of Aperitivo, takes time to chat with each customer, creating a welcoming, homely atmosphere like you’ve just arrived at your friend’s dinner table for good food, wine, and conversation. I am greeted by Andrea, a Milan native, who whisks me through the double doors to meet his counterpart Chef Brian Dodero. The space is fully integrative, with an open floor plan that exposes the prep kitchen and makes the food the focal point. I eagerly peek over to catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse of pasta, seafood, and fresh herbs. The cooks behind the counter are bustling yet still smiling all the same, reminding me of the wonderful times my Italian family has spent together in the kitchen. I leave it to Chef Brian to curate my dinner, and I take a seat at my table.
While in the heart of Santa Barbara, I sip on the Santa Barbara Spritzer, a tart blend of T.W. Hollister & Co. Oso de Oro Vermouth, and Faretti Orange Liqueur that’s topped with prosecco. It’s a modern take on the Aperol Spritz, yet with the light and bubbly flavors of an Italian Negroni Sbagliato—a drink I’m sure my Italian mother would approve of. I can smell the chili oil as Aperitivo’s brand new appetizer is placed in front of me, a dish to transition the menu from winter to spring. So new in fact, that I am the first to try it. I spoon tuna tartare with a pea mousse onto homemade beetroot chips and my tastebuds are met with bright, bold flavors as if the fish were just caught off the shores of Sicily. The translucent, fishbowl style dish sits atop a white marble base, perfectly nestling with the red tuna and green mousse to create the tri-colored flag of Italy. As I devour my last bite, octopus with roasted duck fat potatoes makes a daring appearance and I welcome it with wide eyes. My grandfather would always make octopus when I was growing up, in stews, sauteed, or grilled. It’s the most adventurous dish of the night; I am delighted by the soft, buttery texture of the octopus and the potatoes are golden and roasted to perfection. As a coastal town, Santa Barbara fisheries sell some of the best seafood in the world, making it the perfect location to recreate the most traditional of Italian dishes with Southern California flavors, this being one of them.
The sun begins to set and I am in the mood for something comforting. As if reading my mind, Chef Brian brings out the porquette—tender, shaved pork on a thick slice of toasted bruschetta topped with heaps of arugula and parmesan. This is my kind of open-faced sandwich. Traditional porchetta is made with thick cuts of pork roast, usually sold as a deli sandwich in many northern Italian markets. I’d consider Aperitivo’s dish an upgraded version. The pork is savory and fatty and the bruschetta, made fresh by Aperitivo’s neighbor, Oat Bakery, solely for the restaurant, soaks up all the oils from the pork for a soft crunch. The restaurant business is a family affair and, in working with Oat Bakery, Aperitivo has made it a part of their mission to source locally and collaborate with other small businesses in the area. I am happy I wore loose fitting pants by the time fresh squid ink pasta made daily by Chef Brian himself with roasted garlic and parmesan arrives at the table. The black spirals flecked with red chili flakes have a poignant tang of sea saltiness that ties together the entire meal. It definitely passes my perfect pasta test—homemade, topped with Parmigiano Reggiano, and just enough spice.
As Andrea pours me a glass of Tuscan Tenuta Meraviglia wine to finish off the night, he shares the story of Aperitivo’s conception. Brian cooks, cultivating new menus that reflect the nuanced cuisines of different Italian regions, and Andrea takes to hand-selecting quality, organic wines imported from small, sustainable Italian winemakers. Andrea and Brian coincidentally had their first meeting to discuss the opening of a restaurant the same day that this spot became available for rent. Some would say it was luck, Italians would say, “Il destino da le carte, ma chi le deve giocare siamo noi”—fate deals the cards, but we have to play them.
Before long, a delicate espresso cup is placed before me. Affogato, a Milanese specialty. The blend of hazelnut ice cream topped with crushed hazelnuts and espresso is rich and warm, an homage to Andrea’s hometown. I can’t help but finish the entire thing, blissfully sipping the last few bittersweet drops as the coastal chill sets in for the evening. With a belly full of hearty food and wine, it is the perfect pick-me-up for my walk home. I couldn't leave without snagging a bottle of wine and, with it in hand, I wave goodbye to Andrea and Brian and step onto the street, convinced I am on the cobblestone pavement of some ancient alleyway in Italy.