By Frank Cipparone
’Tis the season to be jolly, to indulge in holiday feasts that prove Italians don’t eat to live, but live to eat. ’Tis the season to spend hours at table with family and friends over multi-course meals that would put Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night” to shame, until you’re so full you wave a napkin in surrender. To round it off, maybe a glass of anisette or limoncello to soothe the stomach.
Potable calming influences on the digestive system are centuries old. Resourceful by necessity, people concocted elixirs from herbs, bark, roots and other natural sources that could supposedly cure all manner of ail- ments from gout to cholera. The recipes for homemade remedies were more closely guard- ed than the Renaissance masterpieces in the Uffizi. Even today, with a wide selection of commercially available digestivi, somewhere in Italy a local potion is being whipped up from whatever can be unearthed.
In every region almost anything can be turned into some sort of “curative” drink. Sardinia’s Mirto is a pleasantly bitter blend of myrtleberries and citrus with a crispy eucalyptus tang. Anywhere you see wild fennel you’ll find Finochietto. In Sicily, cacti lining the roads yield prickly pears (ficci d’India) that are turned into an exceedingly sweet syrupy liqueur. Near Lake Garda the Nardini family produces Acqua di Cedro, a crystal-clear citrus pick-me-up that’s more refined, drier and less alcoholic than limoncello. Erboristas routinely use lemon verbena, musk yarrow, angelica, elderberry, pontica, star anise, and anything else that strikes them for their bag of tricks.
The best-known and most readily available are amari such as Averna, Ramazzotti, Montenegro, and Lucano. Based on distilled spirits like brandy or grappa and mixed with various herbs and botanicals, they produce a wide range of potency and bitterness, with alcohol levels that vary from 15 to 45 percent (30-90 proof) and can be mild to piercingly harsh. Those labeled assenzio contain extremely bitter wormwood. Which you prefer depends on a single gene that determines if you can detect either intense or mild bitterness or none at all.
There are also wine-based amari. Cardamaro smells like Christmas potpourri and includes cardoons and blessed thistle, two medieval medicinal herbs. Barolo Chinato is infused with quinine, ginger, cardamom and rhubarb and has the depth and richness of aged Barolo. Cocchi’s “Dopo Teatro” adds cinchona bark and chirette flowers to make a refreshing, somewhat bitter vermouth. All three go down gently. The same can’t be said of Fernet Branca, a highly alcoholic, powerful wallop of distilled grape spirits. While the family won’t disclose all the ingredients, they do acknowledge using gentian, chamomile, and saffron, the world’s most expensive spice.
A pair of standout versions from northern Italy serve as points of contrast. Braulio’s “Amaro Alpino” has been around for 140 years. Its blend of alpine herbs and roots creates highly bitter and intensely pungent aromas and flavors of dried fruit, menthol and pine. Nonnino from Friuli is a relative newcomer. First produced in 1992, this grappa-based digestive is equally bitter and sweet, evened out by a dose of caramel and a Grand Marnier-like orange flavor that blended with spicy vanilla and licorice. It’s expensive but a good place to start if you’ve never had amaro.
To better understand the bitter truth of amari you have to do a comparative tasting, which is why I recently put together a samp- ling of a half-dozen from across Italy. It’s always good to have a second opinion, so I enlisted the palate and expertise of Zach Morris, well- traveled wine guy and owner of Bloomsday Café on Philly’s Head House Square. The order in which we tasted includes our comments, an arbitrary Bitterness Scale (BS) of 1 (least) to 4 (whoa!), and the alcohol level (ABV).
1. Borsci San Marzano (Puglia) Technically a liqueur, there’s an eye-pop-ping explosion of aggressive alcoholic burn followed by thick layers of dark caramel and bitter cacao. When your brain recovers, a subtle sweetness fills the mouth. BS-3; ABV 28%.
2. Cappelletti “Pasubio” Vino Amaro (Trentino) After the Borsci, the light-as-air aromas are like a stroll through a pine forest. Zach found it close to vermouth, suitable to sip with dry cakes or cookies. BS 1.5/2; ABV 17%.
3. Antica Amaro dell Etnea (Sicily) Classic Sicilian amaro with a savory bite, but not as dark or strong as Averna. It comes across as adult birch beer with a hint of smoky sweet-ness and bitter quinine at the end. BS-2; ABV 29%.
4. Santa Maria Al Monte (Liguria) So intense and minty it’s almost Fernet, a men- tholated attack on the senses that never lets up, so highly medicinal Zach compared it to drinking Ben Gay. Maybe for the stout of heart around a fire pit on a cold night, but … BS-4; ABV 40%.
5. Sibona Amaro (Piedmont) Zach channeled his inner poet, describing it as cool and green, a verdant spot near a lake. I thought it was akin to pulling the wrapper off a candy cane. The smoothest of the six finished mildly sweet. BS-2.5/3; ABV 28%.
6. Cappelletti Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro (Trentino) Sharp on the nose, smoky like a wood fire, with a rush of green herbs and a bittersweet balance. Over rocks it calmed down and left a traditional amaro aftertaste. BS-2; ABV 20%.
Be forewarned, amaro can sneak up on you. Go easy and you just might hear Dean Martin crooning “that’s amari.” Buon Natale!