Rome — like most of Italy — comes alive at night. Dinner is late, often starting around 10 p.m. and going well past midnight. But when all the monuments and shops shutter and dinner’s not for hours, what’s a traveler to do? In this case, the cliche is true — do as the Romans: go for an aperitivo.
What started as an evening ritual in northern cities like Milan and Turin, aperitivo generally involves having a light drink (or two) with friends along with some nibbles — maybe salami and cheese boards, olives, chips, or the ubiquitous round crackers known as taralli — just before dinner. Think of it as a slightly later version of the American happy hour.
And like happy hour, many aperitivo bars now offer discount drink deals and a free or budget snack buffet. While most of these buffets host trays of stale sandwiches and mediocre rice salads, smart diners will skip these and instead seek out one of Rome’s better aperitivo outposts — many of them full restaurants — where the nibbles are more than decent (charcuterie, cheese, sometimes more) and accompany a lovely glass of wine, a craft beer, or a well-mixed cocktail. Just don’t fill up on that jamón spread. Your (late) dinner is waiting nearby.
Some things to know
What to Drink
The traditional aperitivo beverage is the spritz — a low-alcohol bubbly concoction of prosecco, a bitter liqueur like Aperol or Campari, and club soda. While you’ll still find plenty of Romans clutching fizzing red goblets come aperitivo hour, some of the city’s finer cocktail bars would probably rather you went for something less ... cliche. In that case, a gin and tonic mixed with an Italian gin like Malfy or Bordiga will earn fewer looks.
To Pay or Not to Pay?
Even for locals, it’s not always clear if the food is free with a drink purchase or if it needs to be ordered and paid for separately. Don’t be afraid to ask the bartender or server.
Where to Sit
In good weather, most bars have patio seating that spills out into the street. These tables tend to fill up first, so go early (around 7 p.m.) for the best chances at drinking alfresco. You might see Romans heading right out to the street with their cocktails and crackers, but be warned: Drinking out of open containers is only allowed before 10 p.m., and even then, rules vary by neighborhood. Some places with full dinner menus offer reservations, but it’s frowned upon to book unless you plan to linger and make this your meal.
Where to Go
This list of local aperitivo favorites is organized by neighborhood for a reason: As a traveler looking to kill time before that 9 p.m. dinner, it’s most convenient to grab an aperitivo within walking distance of your eventual meal.
La Punta Expendio de Agave
Mezcal and tequila are the focus at this Mexican-inspired bar and restaurant on the quiet side of Trastevere, decked out with colorful tablecloths and murals. Starting at 6:30 p.m., the bar serves imaginative cocktails like the El Pueblo Mágico (mezcal, vermouth, vanilla, Licor de Damiana, bitters) and micheladas, as well as nachos, tacos, and tostadas to share. On Sundays, aperitivo is extended from 5 to 11 p.m. and features live DJ sets. Via di Santa Cecilia, 8, 00153 Rome
A secluded corner hosts this lovely restaurant and cocktail bar where contemporary design (Moroccan-inspired tile and modernist chandeliers) is framed by stone walls and draping greenery. Try the Italians Do It Bitter, made with Campari, basil-infused vermouth, gin, and bergamot liqueur — or entrust yourself to bartender Ilaria Sbal. Olives and peanuts come gratis, but consider ordering the crispy homemade potato chips as well. Via della Paglia, 40, 00153 Rome
Step back in time at this atmospheric enoteca, a favorite of wine connoisseurs, which has been pouring and selling wines to Romans and visitors alike for decades. Don’t be intimidated by the superb collection of high-end bottles that line the floor-to-ceiling shelves. Affordable options and wines by the glass are plentiful, along with old-style snacks like canapes, pickles, and salumi. Via dei Banchi Vecchi, 14, 00186 Rome
Mercerie High Street Food
Chef Igles Corelli is behind the menu at this modern restaurant set in a former textiles shop. The decor is a mix of minimalism and luxury, with golden frames and tufted wallpaper, and the small plates and single bites on the menu — including crunchy “lasagna dumplings” and fantastic smoked salmon — are perfect to accompany a nice cocktail or glass of wine. Via S. Nicola de’ Cesarini, 4/5, 00186 Rome
Pantaleo-Food Wine Mixology
A few steps from Piazza Navona, this elegant restaurant satisfies discerning drinkers as well as raw seafood connoisseurs. The ground floor hosts the counter, a long communal table, and a cheeky, mural-sized hybrid rendering of Santo Pantaleo (a symbol of luck) and historic nobleman and gin lover Count Negroni, holding his namesake drink. Upstairs, the mezzanine is more intimate. Food options include raw oysters, cheese, salami, smoked fish boards, and raw seafood platters to share. Piazza di San Pantaleo, 4, 00186 Rome
Combine chef Rainer Becker’s izakaya-inspired cooking and Zuma’s classically La Dolce Vita setting on the fifth-floor terrace of the grand Palazzo Fendi and you have the perfect spot for a posh aperitivo with Japanese-Mediterranean-inspired drinks and snacks like fried calamari and sea bass crudo. Molto cosmopolitan. Via della Fontanella di Borghese, 48, 00186 Rome
Campo de Fiori
A cozy cafe and bistro with stone walls and lounge-y sofas, Barnum is an eclectic mix of drinks, food, music, and art, with fine cocktails, wines, and fried bites like anchovies, artichokes, and lovely eggplant croquettes. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., and occasionally hosts local artists’ exhibits and guest bartender nights. Via del Pellegrino, 87, 00186 Rome
Open Baladin Roma
Explore Italy’s wide and motley craft beer scene at this welcoming pub launched by pioneer brewer Teo Musso in 2009 as the Roman branch of his Piedmont-based Open Baladin project. Take a seat (if you can find one) on the bustling ground floor with the wall of bottles or choose one of the more intimate upstairs rooms complete with sofas and armchairs. Wherever you sit, start the evening with a good draft beer and the made-to-order chips, drizzled with mayo or sprinkled with cheese and pepper. Via degli Specchi, 6, 00186 Rome
Al Vino Al Vino
A glass of wine and some taralli and focaccia, maybe reinforced by a selection of artisanal cheeses and charcuterie: The aperitivo ritual thrives in this warm, unpretentious enoteca with a definite Italian mood and a focus on small, independent wine producers. Locals love the place as much as tourists. Via dei Serpenti, 19, 00184 Rome
A small, stylish cocktail bar and art gallery with a cool mix of retro decor, Sacripante is a perfect spot for a nightcap — and it’s great for aperitivo too. Take a seat on a sofa or a designer armchair and enjoy excellent drinks alongside simple snacks such as olives and crisps. There’s even a tarot card reader on Wednesdays. Via Panisperna, 59, 00184 Rome
L’Osteria di Birra del Borgo
Birra del Borgo was an early leader in the Italian craft beer movement, and its brewery-restaurant stands out from the average pub. The striking spot, complete with leather sofas and a massive beer bar, matches the stylish clientele. There’s a full dinner menu available from acclaimed Pizzarium chef Gabriele Bonci, but you can also come for an aperitivo — maybe a craft brew, beer-based cocktail, and a slice of crisp pizza. Via Silla, 26a, 00192 Rome
Born from the dream (sogno) of the veteran sommelier Gianni Ruggiero, this homey all-day wine bar and bistro with a quiet room in back offers a number wines by the glass accompanied by Ligurian-style focaccia, homemade farinata (thin chickpea pancakes), and platters of cheese and salami. Via Properzio, 23, 00193 Rome
Eternally packed with a fashionable crowd, this buzzing favorite is as popular for dinner as it is for aperitivo. Prosciutto hangs in the window by the bar, where regulars come for the excellent selection of wines and sliced meats as well as Rome’s beloved cone-shaped pizza pockets, trapizzino. Via Properzio, 31, 00193 Rome
When new owners took over Testaccio’s glorious Volpetti grocery — a beloved neighborhood institution — they also opened an adjacent bistro and wine bar. This sit-down spot serves the same great cheeses, salami, and wines available next door for purchase, as well as a full menu of dishes like spaghetti with raw shrimp and lime or a poached egg with potato cream. Via Alessandro Volta, 8, 00153 Rome
In the lively, often chaotic student neighborhood of San Lorenzo, this intimate enoteca is an oasis of calm and quality. Sit at the counter or at one of the few wooden tables with stools and ask owner Pasquale Livieri to suggest a wine to sip alongside Cantabrian anchovies, charcuterie, and other typically Neapolitan dishes. Via dei Volsci, 51, 00185 Rome
This laid-back risto-pub is mainly focused on craft beer which, at aperitivo time, can be accompanied by house-made potato chips, creative bruschette, cheese spreads, and small tapas-style snacks for one or two euros each. The decor is bright and unpretentious. Via dei Volsci, 80, 00185 Rome
Brothers Tiziano and Mirko Palucci — chef and sommelier, respectively — operate this restaurant and cafe, where refined, modernist plates exist alongside craft beers, natural wines, craft cocktails, and specialty coffee. It’s a worthy stop for dinner as well as aperitivo, with excellent drinks and a primo selection of bruschette and tapas. In summer, enjoy it all on the open-air patio. Via Cesena, 30, 00182 Rome
With a hidden wooden door flanked by huge glass windows, this speakeasy-style cocktail bar boasts a killer drink list — craft beer, champagne, and fancy cocktails — as well as fried bites and gourmet pizzas. Starting at 6:30 nightly, drinks come with a complimentary slice of focaccia. Via La Spezia, 72, 00182 Rome
La Santeria Pizzicheria-Bistrot
From the timeless bistro fare to the classically stylish room — with checkerboard floors, vintage mirrors, and marble bar — La Santeria is a cut above for the popular nightlife neighborhood of Pigneto. Wash down oysters, charcuterie and cheese, and a slate of interesting snacks with an impressive selection of natural wines, fine spirits, and cocktails. Via del Pigneto, 213, 00176 Rome
This narrow bar near the beginning of Pigneto’s pedestrianized main street specializes in vermouth, but locals gather in the warmly lit bar or at the tables on the sidewalk to also drink a range of aperitifs, like spritzes made with Cynar instead of Aperol, stronger cocktails like Negronis, and wines by the glass from organic and biodynamic vineyards. Mezzo doesn’t have a proper kitchen, but they offer a few cold snacks, some of which are discounted until 9 p.m. Via del Pigneto, 19, 00176 Rome
More than 15 different wines are available by the glass and hundreds more by the bottle at this cozy enoteca, where bohemian locals hang alongside savvy tourists. The cheerful staff delivering your mixed cheese and salumi board only enhance the mood. Piazza dei Condottieri, 26/27, 00176 Rome
One of the smallest restaurants in Rome — it only has one communal table — Mazzo’s greatness lies in the outstanding food of Francesca Barreca and Marco Baccanelli. But before dinner they also serve aperitivo with an excellent range of natural wines, artisanal gin and tonics, and fries. Via delle Rose, 54, 00171 Rome
Open since 2001 — well before the current wave of hype over this peripheral neighborhood — this small enoteca is a beacon for pre-dinner drinks. International wines by the glass, craft beers, and small snacks like bruschette and salumi invite locals to make a night of it. Via delle Albizzie, 12, 00172 Rome