Amaro: Sweet Truths of an Italian Bitter
Vi posso offrire un amaro? Or, “Can I offer you an amaro?” is the single most reassuring phrase to be heard at the conclusion of a restaurant meal in Italy. Like the glass of mint tea produced at a Middle Eastern bazaar after lengthy carpet negotiations, an amaro seals the deal between restaurateur and guest and cements a bond of satisfaction shared on both ends. The client has eaten well and enjoys the atmosphere enough to want to linger long at the dinner table. The restaurant owner offers the after-dinner digestivo liqueur free of charge as a symbolic thank you for the patronage.
“Amaro is the cherry on top of the perfect Italian meal,” says Alessio Liberatore, who runs the popular, family-run Taverna dei Fori Imperiali restaurant near the Colosseum in Rome.
Amaro (translated as “sour” or “bitter”) is as much part of Italy’s culinary playlist as espresso, pizza and gelato. It represents a much-loved excuse to prolong the eating experience among friends and family and evokes all the free-in-spirit lifestyle associations we make with Italy, such as spontaneous trattoria sing-alongs and soccer sound offs. Better still, because these herb- and root-based liqueurs are believed to offer various (if minor) medical benefits, some maintain that a thimble-sized glass of amaro is good for you.
In a tradition that started many centuries ago, craft amaros continue to be brewed at monasteries and abbeys by monks looking to dabble in alchemy and secure a small side income in the sale of invigorating herbal tonics and elixirs. Tuscany today is dotted with monasteries that sell amaro, including the well-known Monte Senario sanctuary outside Florence. Other historic producers of amaro have long touted it as an aphrodisiac, a pain reliever or an antitoxin. All producers, from the large commercial ones to the small, artisan makers, celebrate amaro for the bodily function most often attributed to the drink: digestion.
Well, maybe not all. “There’s more evidence to suggest that alcohol stops digestion rather than helps it,” says Giovanni Fassone with Distillerie dei Dogi, whose Genoa-based company makes Amaro Santa Maria al Monte. As he flips through an aged, canvas-bound book from the collection of distillery and liqueur reference books in his library, he reads off a list of some of the most common herbs, roots and flowers used in amaro. “Many of the individual ingredients may certainly help in the digestive process, yet it is impossible to say if any one brand offers the right doses to make a difference.”
Fact or fiction, amaro’s identity as an aid in digestion is no longer the point. Today, thanks to creative expressions by mixologists and barmen, amaro is proving far more popular, versatile and food friendly (even before a meal as a cocktail) than those friars and monks would have ever imagined.