Editor’s Note: Serious Eats correspondent Carey Jones, eating her way around Italy, will be reporting back from Rome, Bologna, Tuscany, and Puglia.

"For those who like to taste and nibble without committing too much money or stomach space, it’s a dream come true."

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Americans have their happy hour bar snacks; the Spanish, their tapas. But no one does a drink-and-nibble like the Italians and their aperitivi. Starting around 6 p.m, give or take a few hours, most bars deliver a small tray of bite-sized stuzzichini (appetizers) with your drink—a pair of eggplant-ricotta rolls, say, or a few prosciutto crostini. And an increasing number of bars are laying out full-scale buffets of enticing finger foods, included in the price of your drink. For those who like to taste and nibble without committing too much money or stomach space, it’s a dream come true.

20090322APTzan250.jpgTake Zanarini, a beautiful bar and café spilling into Bologna's Piazza Galvani. While potato chips and huge, fresh olives were delivered with my drink, a quick trip to the buffet scored a plate of smoked salmon tea sandwiches, tiny bites of mortadella hugged by little brioche buns, an open-faced egg sandwich and its tangy anchovy cousin, a bite of fresh crab in a buttery broth, and a carefully piped pumpkin puree dotted by two lovely, sweet shrimp. When I polished these off, the bartender brought me a second plate with a wink. All this, plus a well-poured and bracingly bitter Negroni, for just €9? On any level, it’s a deal. And for me, it was a dinner.

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Of course, as with any seeming steal, there are caveats. Drink prices inevitably go up during aperitivi hour; even a Coke might suddenly cost €7, because you’re paying for the buffet. The cash-strapped should probably move elsewhere for a second drink, as those same elevated rates apply each time. Food selections vary—less pricey student bars may have little more than a few stale crackers, so try to get a sense of the selection before you commit.

And looking out for their own well-being, some slightly less forthcoming bars will try to turn the tables. With a stunning display of caviar, oysters, and meltingly fresh mozzarella, along with a dozen other similarly top-shelf treats, Bottega Montecitorio offers one of the most impressive aperitivi buffets I’ve ever seen. But if it seems too good to be true—all you can eat oysters and caviar?—it probably is. The suspiciously reasonable prices on the cocktail menu and wine list are around one-third what each drink will actually set you back. (My glass of Montepulciano was admittedly excellent, but not €15 excellent.) And while the food is laid out buffet-style, those oyster shells are counted at the end—and rung up at five euro per oyster, as we weren’t informed until the bill came. Granted, this is the kind of establishment where the clientele doesn’t quibble about little things like €5 oysters, and posting prices might seem uncouth. Still, some kind of warning would have been appreciated.

Occasional sticker-shock surprises aside, however, the aperitivi buffet can be a great way to grab a light meal on the (relatively) cheap. Mind your manners; this isn’t an All-You-Can-Eat at Sizzler. One plate per drink is probably enough, or two if the bartender is in good spirits. But choose your bar wisely and one of Italy's greatest traditions is yours for the nibbling.

Caffé Zanarini

Piazza Galvani 1, Bologna (map)
caffezanarini.com

Bottega Montecitorio

Via della Guglia 62, Rome (map)

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