Debt Crisis Boom for Italian Aperitivo Buffets

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As Italy's austerity measures hit home, the "aperitivo" is on the rise with more and more Italians heading for lavish happy hour buffets instead of traditional sit-down restaurants to save money.

Drinks priced at between six and 10 euros ($8 and $13) in a growing number of bars give customers unlimited access to a range of snacks ranging from crisps and mini-pizzas to elaborate sandwiches, pasta dishes and meat platters.

The "aperitivo" tradition -- popularly known as "a poor man's dinner" -- originated in Milan around a decade ago and has expanded across the country.

It is most widespread in northern Italy but aperitivo bars are now cropping up in parts of Rome and Naples, their popularity spreading by word of mouth.

"It's not expensive. It allows you to go out without paying for dinner in a restaurant and it brings in a lot of people," said Lucilla, 24, a patron at a trendy bar in a former car repair workshop in Rome's Trastevere district.

"Maybe it makes you a bit fat but it's cheap. Everyone can afford it!"

Another patron at the bustling bar on a balmy spring evening, 34-year-old Stefano said: "The atmosphere is relaxed. You just have a good time!"

Most of the customers at the bar -- "Freni e Frizioni" -- are youthful but there was an older crowd too that might fit in better at a trattoria.

"I found this buffet where you can eat well," said one client in his 50s.

Italy's main restaurant association FIPE said "happy hour" bars are booming while traditional eateries are shutting down due to the debt crisis.

Italy's economy entered recession in the second half of last year and the crisis is expected to deepen this year, with ordinary Italians feeling the pinch from tax increases, pension reforms and a raft of budget cuts.

"It's an economic model that is resistant to the crisis and it's in full bloom," association head Lino Stoppani told Agence France Presse in an interview.

The buffets at these "low-cost restaurants" are very appealing, he said.

"The happy hour is a cross between the traditional aperitif and an evening meal. Consumers have a cheap dinner," said FIPE expert Luciano Sbraga.

The business model is also simple enough for bar owners since the buffet is self-service and requires no extra licences for the establishment.

"We profit from the influx of clients and since we have a lot, the aperitivo is good business," said Cristian Bugiada, a barman at "Freni e Frizioni".

"In seven years, we have seen our clientele change. At the beginning it was mostly foreign tourists but now it's increasingly locals who come," he said.

But while the aperitivo rises, restaurants "are suffering," Sbraga said.

A recent survey by the Confcommercio business association found that 78 percent of Italians have cut down on their restaurants lunches and dinners.

FIPE said last year alone 3,400 restaurants were forced to shut down.

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