Aperitivo? Apericena? Aperiwhat?
In the traditional sense, an aperitivo is a pre-dinner drink, where pre-dinner means that it is usually consumed before having dinner. It can be either alcoholic or non-alcoholic and its purpose is to open up one's appetite before the meal. In order to fully open up one's appetite, the aperitivo is usually accompanied by a light snack - crisps, olives, peanuts, salty pretzel thingies, small cheese cubes, sliced salame, etc. If one goes to a bar for an aperitivo, this will usually be served between 18:00 and 21:00, with times varying depending on geographical region, establishment and/or both.
Now, the apericena is a practice which boomed in the last few decades. It extends the concept of the aperitivo to a full size meal aimed at replacing dinner. During an apericena establishments typically offer actual food, as opposed to small snacks, to their beverage-consuming customers. Apericene are usually served at similar times as the aperitivo, so between 18:00 and 21:00. Some establishments might extend this into the evening, other will clear the buffet as soon as the clock ticks over the end hour.
To make matters more confusing, these terms are often used interchangeably. Some places call aperitivo the apericena, others use apericena, some don't say anything and just serve food along drinks.
How can I find out whether a specific bar offers an aperitivo?
Look. Before sitting down look at the counter and at what other customers are having. Is there a food buffet anywhere? Then it's likely to be an apericena. Are customers munching on olives along with their drink? It's likely to be an aperitivo. Is there a sign saying "happy-hour 18:00-21:00"? When in doubt, ask.
How can I find out which places in the city I am in offer aperitivi?
Word to mouth work wonders. Every aperitivo aficionado will have their own favourite aperitivo place. Ask. Don't want to ask? Internet is your friend. Search for something like "i migliori aperitivi di XYZ" where XYZ is the city you are interested in.
How much should I expect to pay for the drink / aperitivo?
This is a hard one, and borderline unanswerable. There is extreme variability between geographical regions and establishments that it is impossible to define how much you will actually pay. The only way to know for sure is to ask the establishment. "Quanto costano le bevande durante l'aperitivo?"
Some places charge a flat rate for all drinks, others charge the normal menu price, others increase the price slightly to cover for the food costs. I have personally paid prices ranging from 5 to 15 EUR. My own personal favourite bar in Milan charged the same as always (5EUR for a pint of Hoegaarden) but offered food during the aperitivo hours. Their business plan was to make you stay longer and thus consume more, rather than charging more and you consuming just one drink. The skyline fashion bar facing the main tourist attraction in your home town is obviously likely to charge more.
What should I say when ordering to make sure I actually get this aperitivo deal? (In Italian and/or English)
I would simply ask for information on how the aperitivo/apericena works. "Fate l'aperitivo oggi?", "Come funziona l'aperitivo?"
What type of drink should I order to blend in with the locals? Can I order any kind of drink to get the aperitivo?
This is an easy one. Whichever drink you want. I've seen people drink beer, cocktails, non-alcoholic beverages, juices, and even plain water. Nobody around you cares what you drink. What might happen though is that you will get charged a flat rate whichever drink you order. Consider it might sting to pay, say, 10EUR for a 500ml bottle of water. Some places might offer the food deal only to customers consuming certain specific drinks. If this is the case then you'll be given a menu stating this. When in doubt, ask. "Posso ordinare qualsiasi bevanda per approfittare dell'aperitivo?"
What type of food can I expect?
At a snack-type aperitivo you will usually be served small snacks - crisps, olives, peanuts, salty pretzel thingies, small cheese cubes, sliced salame, etc. At a full size apericena anything goes. I've seen pizzette, focacce, cheese, ham, lasagna, pate, insalata di riso, you name it. Again, the goal is for you not to eat dinner after the apericena. An apericena will typically look like this:
Some might even consider this to be a small apericena. I've seen buffets which were much more majestic than this. Note that some establishment take pride in offering the largest and tastiest selection of food in the city. Make sure you take advantage of this. Don't settle for olives and crisps.
Is it an all-you-can-eat? Will I make a bad impression if I take multiple servings? Will someone stop me and scream at me in Italian?
You can take as many servings as you wish. Come back for seconds, thirds or even twentieths. You can order one more drink if you want, but are not even obliged to do so. The implicit agreement is that since you bought one drink you are entitled to consume the food too. Just be considerate and avoid wasting food.
How do I avoid tourist traps related to aperitivo?
You don't. If you know enough about a location to know that they offer an aperitivo/apericena then you can be sure that you won't be falling in a tourist trap. Tourist traps in Italy are the overpriced rubber-coated pizzas restaurants serve in touristy places. At an aperitivo/apericena you will have a drink and get some food too. What could go wrong?
If you want to make sure that you are getting treated exactly like other customers just look around you. What are others doing? What are they drinking? What are they eating? How much? When in Rome, do as the Romans do and have an aperitivo.
What else should I be aware of?
Do not confuse the aperitivo/apericena with the happy-hour which is typically a time frame in which establishments offer discounted rates on drinks. Sometimes the aperitivo and happy hour do overlap. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes happy-hour is used as a synonym for aperitivo/apericena. Once again this depends on geographical region, establishment, and/or both.