Sometimes it feels like we’ve all become over-programmed. We schedule every moment of our lives on digital calendars, meticulously research hot new restaurants online and use devices to track every step we take and every minute we sleep.
So it felt good to cede control during a trip to Italy, where I discovered the magic of the “mystery amaro” game.
It all started because I didn’t have a menu in front of me. I had landed in Rome just hours earlier and joined a group for dinner. Still feeling a bit woozy with transatlantic jet lag, my command of Italian limited to just a few phrases, I looked wearily to the waiter after dinner: “Un amaro, per favore.” An amaro, please. Which one? You choose.
His eyes twinkled with the challenge, and soon he set a glass of deep-brown liquid in front of me. The aroma was familiar, redolent of cola, espresso and orange peel. I must have visibly relaxed from just the scent. Which one? I inquired. Averna, he replied.
Sometimes I received a familiar glassful, but my favorites were local specialties I’d never tried before.
Amaro, Italy’s famously bitter liqueur steeped with herbs, roots and other flavorings, is favored as a digestivo, and figures on every dessert menu or wine/spirits list in Italy. As we traveled north over the following days, the “mystery amaro” game became part of my after-dinner routine.
Sometimes I received a familiar glassful, but my favorites were local specialties I’d never tried before. For example, the Tuscany region brought Amarancia, a bitter orange-tinged amaro made by Emilio Borsi in a small hilltop town in nearby Maremma. Heading on to Piedmont, a glass of inky-dark, almost medicinal Amaro San Simone closed out a meal of regional specialties like luscious raw beef and rabbit marinated in red wine.
Back in Rome, on my own and a bit more confident in my communication skills, I stopped into a bar in the funky Pigneto neighborhood, where the locals mostly quaffed beer, and received a shot glass of chilled, spearmint-accented Braulio; the bottle was stored in the freezer, the bartender said. My final night in Italy, I chased a plate of hazelnut-studded risotto with Calabria’s Vecchio Amaro del Capo in a small, demure wineglass.
Although Italy was clearly the right place to embark upon an unintentional comparative study in amaro, I intend to continue the experiment at home.
I look forward to asking bartenders to select mystery Bourbons. Or maybe I’ll try requesting any Italian red from the by-the-glass selection and see what lands in front of me.
I hope this practice will help me focus on simpler moments, like the joy of sampling a new-to-me amaro. Letting serendipity guide my drink choice turned out to the best decision I never made.