Rounding out a meal with the grown-up taste of Italian bitters can be a sweet experience indeed.
Do you recall a time when escargots were horrible little slimy snails and caviar was a bunch of salty fish eggs that only stupid grown-ups would touch? But now you love those foods and will pay many dollars for them. Well it’s time to swallow another bitter pill. Literally. And you’ll be happy that you did.
You see, there are bitters and there are bitters. Some—and perhaps these are the ones that are top of mind—are alcohol-based, proprietary concoctions, such as Angostura and Peychaud’s, which are used in tiny quantities as a flavor-enhancing adjunct to a cocktail. Indeed, a Manhattan without its Angostura or orange bitters is a pale imitation of its properly made incarnation.
The other category of bitters, however, is far different. These bitters, also alcohol based, are infusions or distillates of roots, barks, fruit peels, herbs and sometimes vegetables, and all of them are bitter on the palate. Each can be a drink unto itself, poured straight from the bottle and served neat, over ice or in combination with other ingredients. Think of Campari, probably the most popular brand of bitters, and add to that Fernet Branca and Cynar (pronounced CHEE-nar), that odd duck that’s made from artichoke leaves. They’re bitters, too.
In Italian, each of these beverages is categorized as an amaro, which means—surprise, surprise—bitter. Yet, most of the time at least, Italians think of an amaro as a digestive, to be consumed after dinner, as a delightful way to aid digestion and also to round out a fine meal—Italian or not. Thus, while some might be sipping a grappa and others warming a fine Cognac in the cup of their hands, an amaro aficionado might be nursing a glass of Amaro Nonino or Fratelli Averna.
American-born cookbook author Faith Heller Willinger, for decades now a resident of Florence and expert observer of Italian life and lifestyles, paints an interesting picture of amari in Italian culture. In her book, Eating in Italy (Hearst Books, 1989), she notes that amari are digestivi, digestive liquors, that “are consumed at the end of a meal, after coffee is served, to aid and stimulate digestion, a process of great interest to Italians. Many unwritten laws that govern eating habits … are dictated by an obsession with the functions of the liver, the body’s filter, an organ not to be taken lightly. Americans are thought to be concerned only with the stomach, a rather simplistic approach to digestion.” Perhaps we need to step back a pace or two to see the big picture and think of our comestible intake in a more universal sense.
Tony May, owner of San Domenico restaurant in New York, believes that Americans should be introduced to this category of drinks very slowly. He explains that many Americans can’t quite grasp the essence of amari—they think “bitter,” and that word has a negative impact. But he is well known for being able to change people’s minds. May says that he will suggest, or even buy, his customers an amaro after they’ve finished dinner just to get them interested in the category. The next time they dine at his restaurant, however, many will have become converts; they voluntarily choose an amaro for their after-dinner drink.
But not all amari are meant for after dinner. Several, Campari, Cynar, and Punt e Mes among them, are recommended as aperitifs that will prepare the palate and stomach (and liver) for the meal that will follow. Indeed, this is another way to familiarize people with the category: Try a beautiful, tall, scarlet-hued Campari and soda, or mix Campari with fresh orange or grapefruit juice, which will sweeten it somewhat. Even though Campari is probably the easiest form of bitters to develop a taste for, it is, for most, still an acquired taste. Created by Gaspare Campari in the mid-1800s in Milan, Campari, it is said, must be tasted three times before it can be properly appreciated. Once you understand what Campari is all about, you’ll never look back.
The label on the Cynar bottle recommends that it always be served on ice, or mixed with soda, cola or tonic, and names it “the prelude to anything good.” Tempting, no? This potion is said to contain “‘cynarin,’ an ingredient in the artichoke that modifies the taste buds and causes the food or drink that follows to taste sweeter.”
Punt e Mes is an “amaro vermouth,” made in Turin by the esteemed Carpano group, which produces another amaro named quite simply, Carpano. Punt e Mes, though, bears a sweetish nose and a dryish, bitter palate, and since its alcohol content is relatively low (17% abv), it’s also a good starting point for neophytes to the category. Try this one instead of sweet vermouth in a Manhattan.
Bitters such as all of these we’ve mentioned can be a sweet thing to know. Italians have long embraced them as the perfect drink with which to end a meal, so next time you’re not quite sure whether to order brandy, aged rum, single malt Scotch or Tequila to sip when the evening is winding down, take a chance on a glass of amaro. Or, at the very least, try one of the following cocktails—you can sip these whenever you like.
Pour Campari into an ice-filled highball glass. Add vermouth and soda. Garnish with lemon twist.
Pour Campari, vermouth and gin into an ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with lemon twist.
Stir gin, Campari and vermouth over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the orange twist.
A Spoonful Of Sugar . . .
The Bellini was created by famed restaurateur Harry Cipriani, who introduced it to customers at Harry’s Bar in Venice in the 1940s, and it’s said that he made the drink as an homage to the 15th-century Italian artist Jacopo Bellini, whose paintings usually bore a pinkish hue, as does the drink.
There are a few other Italian liqueurs that deserve mention here, one of which is Amaretto, the almond-flavored liqueur that goes well alongside a cup of espresso or cappuccino, but is also the base for some fun and fairly sophisticated cocktails. The Boccie Ball, for example, a simple mix of Amaretto and orange juice, can be a very refreshing quaff, but if you’re in the mood for something a little sturdier, try a Godfather or a Godmother—the former is made with a Scotch base and the latter calls for vodka and Amaretto. And if you prefer hazelnuts to almonds, use Frangelico instead of the Amaretto.
The other great liqueur from Italy is Galliano, and although it’s seldom consumed neat or even in coffee, it’s an essential ingredient in one of the great drinks of the 1970s—the Harvey Wallbanger. Legend has it (and it’s very probably more legend than fact), that a California surfer named Harvey drank a few too many of these highballs back in the 1970s, and would regularly bang into walls on his way home. Whatever the truth of the matter, the Harvey Wallbanger, simply a Screwdriver with a float of Galliano on top, is a great drink that’s well worth reviving.
Cut peach into small cubes, discarding the pit, but not the skin. Combine with ice cubes, lemon juice and sugar and blend to a purée.
Divide the peach purée evenly among four to six Champagne flutes, and fill the glasses with the chilled Prosecco. Stir briefly. Makes 6 servings.
The Harvey Wallbanger
Pour the vodka and the orange juice into
The Boccie Ball
Pour Amaretto and orange juice into an ice-filled highball glass and stir briefly.
Pour both vodka and Amaretto into an ice-filled rocks glass and stir briefly.