Once upon a time, a pre-dinner drink in Italy meant a swiftly served aperitif with a bowl of nuts or potato chips and some fat green olives.

It's often still done this way, but in the fashionable neighbourhoods of Turin, Milan and Rome, the tradition has morphed into a nightly phenomenon of complimentary buffet spreads so lavish that the three courses that are supposed to follow are almost a thing of the past.

Classic aperitivos

Aperitivo drinks are often the establishment's proudest accomplishment and based around traditional aperitifs or fortified wines. Menu stalwarts include Punt e Mes on the rocks, a Negroni (Campari, Martini Rosso vermouth and gin), the Americano (Campari, Martini Rosso vermouth and soda), or a spritz (Aperol or Campari and prosecco). Prices are routinely hoisted to take in the price of the 'free' food, and range from around €4 up to €15 per drink at some of Milan's more stellar hotels. The same flat rate charge will often be applied to beer, wine, analcolici (virgin) cocktails and even mineral water.

The cocktail hour stretches into three – generally from 6pm-9pm, though bars are often empty before 7pm.

What can you expect to find on your plate come Campari o'clock?

Carbs take centre stage at humbler bars, with endless variations on the pizza, crostini and bruschetta theme. Further up the food chain you may come across salumi (cured meats), local cheeses, suppli (fried rice balls), freshly cooked potato chips, gratinée peppers and grilled eggplant. Top-end places will rotate a number of dishes, including sushi-grade raw fish, oysters, vitello tonnato (cold veal topped with tuna mayonnaise), barley or couscous salads, cauliflower or cardoon fritters, and a few platters of hot pasta doing the rounds.

Word to the wise: Italians are not shy about going back to the buffet for seconds on the strength of one drink.

Where to drink up - past and present

The stately capital of Piedmont, Turin, claims to have come up with the aperitivo idea. It's a boast at least based in historical fact: vermouth – a fortified wine infused with herbs – was invented there in 1786. The city has its fair share of evocative historic cafes (such as Piazza San Carlo's Caffe San Carlo or Caffe Torino) as well as many 21st-century bars. Piazza Vittoria Veneto's Drogheria attracts a young crowd for a healthy help-yourself spread – faro salads, frittata, paella – and Stevie Wonder on vinyl, while the ultra slick Bianco goes all out with a hot pasta buffet.

If the Piazza's barely subdued club-kid feel is not your style, up on Via Po, family-friendly Caffe Roberto serves up 'apericena' – three courses from risotto to roasts to tiramisu. Just north of the Quadrilatero Romano, Piazza Emanuele Filiberto is a hip but pretty little square with several options including Francophone Pastis, traditionalist Arancia di Mezzanotte and the delightful Tre Galli. The latter bucks the all-out, all-inclusive trend: instead, focaccia, artisan Piedmontese cheeses and cold cuts can be had for €5, with wine remaining at very reasonable a la carte prices.

Going over the top in Milan

While lacking the historical upper hand, Milan's aperitivo scene is equally, if not even more, over the top. Bars such as the Parco Sempione district's Roialto and Milano pride themselves on conspicuous consumption – waiters shuck oysters to order, flip bespoke omelettes, and saw your choice of cheese from enormous wheels of the stuff. At Noon in Magenta they pile the luxe offerings high, while there's a more laidback vibe at places such as Ticinese's Le Biciclette or Isola's Frida, where the emphasis is more on fresh salads and pizza.

For a piece of aperitivo history, and a design-centric but friendly crowd, head to Bar Basso, just north of Porta Venezia; in the 60s, the Negroni's lighter little sister, the Sbagliato, was born here when a barman accidentally substituted spumante for the customary gin (hence the 'mistake' of the name).

While aperitivo offerings get more perfunctory the further south you go, Rome's scene is quietly thriving. Gems like Trastevere's Freni e Frizioni depart from Italian staples with fresh Eastern Med mezze, while La Mescita offers up wonderful slabs of pecorino and fresh mussels to pick at.

So forget all preconceptions of happy hours past with their watered-down margaritas and two-for-one deals. You may hand over a few more euros for a single glass of the good stuff, but with dinner and a bella figura floorshow thrown in, aperitivo is not only a not-to-be missed Italian tradition, it's an absolute bargain.

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