What is the most delightful Italian word? For my money, there is one that has the edge on pomodoro, vaporetto, risotto, Lamborghini, parmigiano, and even the overplayed amore. What heart does not leap at the mention of aperitivo? The word is like a smile. In Italy, the early evening aperitivo is more than just a drink. In the humblest of bars, you normally get nuts, crisps, a bit of cheese or mortadella with your birra, grappa or negroni. In posh joints, you get a lavish spread that those untutored in the ways of Italian restraint could easily treat as dinner rather than a prefatory morsel. It is this admirable tradition, especially strong in Milan, that the Italian beer maker Peroni is attempting to introduce to the barbarian north.
The company has commissioned a dozen toothsome nibbles from Giorgio Locatelli. The recipes are on the Peroni website and "will be available in a selection of bars and restaurants across the UK". Making it fashionable to have food with drink is surely the best way of overcoming our culture of intoxication, though I somehow doubt if baccala mantecato (salt cod purée on polenta) or parmigiana di melanzane (aubergines baked with parmesan) will make an appearance in my local, the Jolly Woodman. To initiate its aperitivo campaign, the company shipped a small party of giornalisti inglesi (not perhaps the most lovely words in Italian) to Milan for a night of sipping and nibbling. Selflessly, I agreed to take part in this onerous mission. Weasel readers have a right to know about Milanesi mouthfuls.
Before getting down to brass tacks (chiodi d'ottone), we were given a whirlwind guided tour of Europe's style capital. On via Guiseppe Verdi (Joe Green Street), we clustered into a box of La Scala for a peek at the legendary auditorium, stifling even on a mild spring day. "It was destroyed by bombs in 1943," said our guide, a no-nonsense lady of a certain age.
"That would be us," I remarked.
"I don't know," she replied. "I wasn't there at the time."
Scuttling past a Dumbledore-like statue of Leonardo, we whisked into the grandiose 19th-century shopping mall of the Galleria, where a hackette in our party was strafed by a radio-controlled toy helicopter. Apocalypse Now was followed by The Ten Commandments when our guide parted the Red Sea of a communist demonstration in the main square so we could get to the cathedral. Inside, sequoia-like columns leading to the distant altar were rendered indistinct by a numinous haze. Our guide charged towards her favourite item in this venerable pile. "It's a little bit sad but very interesting," she promised. This treat turned out to be Marco D'Agrate's 1562 statue of the flayed St Bartolomew, who carries his skin over his arm like a raincoat. "It's very accurate. Even now, medical students come here to study before their anatomy exams." Following this insight into Italy's cutting-edge medicine, our guide once more forged a passage through the world's best-dressed revolutionaries before bidding us a relieved "Arrivederci".
It was time to satisfy more earthly appetites. At the first stop on our aperativo trail, we struck Gold. That is the name, décor and presiding motif of Dolce & Gabbana's less-than-subtle style bar. Even the toilet cubicals are entirely gold except for a video screen built into the door to keep you entertained while attending to the call of nature. I would have described the decor as "Goldfinger's lair", though it was more Austin Powers than James Bond. Plates of nibbles were offered by waiters, who went down on one knee to do the serving. Feeling more than a bit like King Midas, I accepted what looked like a potato croquet – but what golden surprise lay inside? The answer: the inside of a potato croquet. This was followed by the soggiest onion rings I've ever had, cucumber rings topped by a squirt of something pink and utterly tasteless and tuna chunks in passion-fruit sauce. You would get better food in the Fort Knox canteen, but I don't suppose nutrition is high on the agenda for the nil-by-mouth fashionistas who patronise Gold.
Our second stop was a sprawling, noisy bar called Milano. Here the food wasn't bad, but you had to queue an age while cooks prepared little omelettes, tiny plates of sashimi or a few slivers of prosciutto. "A bit like the Ideal Home Show," muttered one of my colleagues. The third and final destination of the night was a mirrored cellar called Armani Privé, which, I shouldn't wonder, also has some fashion association. At 11.30pm, we were the first to arrive. The food here was worse even than Gold, in the sense that non-existence is worse than existence. Aside from the ice and slice in your glass, there was nothing to eat at all. Plenty to drink, mind you. This is because you have to buy a bottle, either champagne or spirits, if you wish to sit down. As our party demolished a litre of Absolut, it reminded me of the gruff barman in the Capra weepie It's a Wonderful Life: "We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast." It was all too inglese for words. Though we didn't manage it during our night on the tiles, you can get great aperitivo in Milan. In fact, I've had it myself on previous trips. Obviously, much more research is required in this vital area. I return to Milan later this month.