The Art of Aperitivo
The Italian word aperitivo is derived from the Latin aperire, which means: to open. In many ways, an aperitivo is precisely that: the beginning (or opening) of a meal, with the intention of stimulating (again, opening) one's appetite.
In the late afternoon, when the sun begins to set and the air cools considerably, the sound of footsteps, chatter, and laughter permeate through the previously vacant piazze -- and so the evening begins. Bars that typically serve coffee during the day are now doling out wine and bitters, while some restaurants open their doors early, covering the tables with small dishes of chips, olives, or other savoury morsels. An hour can easily fly by with a drink, a few bites, and a lot of camaraderie. Then, it's off to dinner...
The variety of what could be served during an aperitivo varies greatly depending on the establishment. However, the basic formula is a dry or bitter drink with a salty snack, meant to be consumed in very moderate quantities since dinner awaits, of course. Modern wine bars challenge the status quo by embracing the small plates and using them as a medium for their art, drifting far from the expected cup of potato chips. One of my favourite establishments in Genoa is famous for its bruschette, which could arrive simply with chopped fresh tomatoes and olive oil, or more elaborately with creamy buratta and anchovies.
The inspiration for this recipe comes from a relatively new wine bar which I had the pleasure of visiting a handful of times in the short few months it was open before I moved to Canada. Never serving the same aperitivo twice, they always impress with both the presentation and, more importantly, the flavour. It was there that I discovered crema di ceci, which I like to call, "an Italian hummus". Served in adorable little cups, it was the perfect match to a naturally fermented rosé wine on a hot summer night.
Crema di ceci (chickpea spread) and vellutata di ceci (creamy chickpea soup) are great ways to elevate the simple chickpea. Personally, I cook a lot of legumes, so I am always searching for new ways to make them more interesting! In this recipe, I have added saffron and lemon to give the chickpea cream a vibrant yellow colour and distinctive taste. You could serve this in small cups for an aperitivo, or appetizer, with crispy fried chickpeas. It would also be great spread on sourdough bread or crackers, served as a dip with crudités (raw vegetables), or added to a broth for a rich and satisfying soup.
Saffron Chickpea Spread (Crema di ceci)
- 350 g cooked chickpeas, drained
- 1 celery heart (about 3 thin stalks)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 small lemon
- olive oil
- pinch saffron
- sea salt
- parsley, to serve
In a frying pan, heat 3 tbsp olive oil over a medium heat. Once hot, swirl in the pan and add the chopped garlic cloves, chopped celery stalks, and a pinch of sea salt. Turn the heat down to low and sautée until soft (but not caramelised). Add a pinch of saffron, the lemon zest, and the lemon juice. Stir to distribute evenly.
In a blender or food processor, add 300 g chickpeas, the sautéed vegetables, 1 tbsp olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Blend until well combined. If you prefer it to be creamier, add more olive oil and blend again. Add enough salt to taste.
In a frying pan, heat 3 tbsp olive oil over a medium heat. Add the remaining 50 g chickpeas with a pinch of salt, and fry until crispy on the outside, shaking the pan regularly.
To serve, place the chickpea cream in a bowl or individual glasses. Press down with the back of a spoon to make an indentation in the centre. Top with some of the crispy chickpeas, a pinch of saffron and salt, a drizzle of olive oil, and fresh parsley.