I have a lot of favorite Italian drinks, liquors, liqueurs. They all have distinctive flavors and assertive personalities. They are each built with the character of Italy.
Sip any one of them and feel the air of Italy, the bumpy cobblestones of a Roman street, the colliding aromas of espresso & moped fumes, the centuries-old sparkle of the Ligurian Mediterranean, the stunning (seemingly impossible) vistas of Campania & Venezia, the roller coaster ride of the language of Italy floating about your ears.
Taste one of these drinks and the sensory receptors of your palate will zap you back to where you first tasted it. It takes you there. To Italy.
And if you haven’t been to Italy, taste any one of these and be privileged to know the secret aura of true Italian taste.
Some are aperitivi (before dinner drinks), some digestivi (after dinner drinks), some find their way into any part of the day, like grappa.
Here are some of my favorites and their particular “spirit.”
This bright red bitter drink was first spied on by my mom on her first trip to Rome. What are they all drinking that is look-at-me red and savored with ice, with soda, and straight? We had to explore. And WOW. Both my mom and I fell in love with Campari. Some say “stay away!”…they think cough syrup is at hand. But Italians (and me and mom) beg to differ. Refreshing, bright, summery (but have it in winter, too), add rocks with some soda or tonic, add a sliver of lemon or lime. Oh yes.
(In Italy you can find little adorable bottles of Campari and soda already mixed.)
Punt e Mes…
This one has a secret recipe. I imagine the creator in a Torino apartment surrounded by floor to ceiling books. John Coltrane plays on the record player. A cigarette likely hangs from his mouth as he dices some onion for a risotto and in between sips Punt e Mes on the rocks. But the recipe is a lot older than that and likely involves a wearer of wide-pleated trousers, suspenders, and a broad mustache. My first sip took place on a top floor of the Ansonia Hotel in NY. My Italian teacher (who was from Verona) took out a bottle during class and served it to the five of us around her dining table. I felt like my taste buds were socked in the nose. And I was suddenly speaking Italian with ease. Che sorpresa! Where can I get this? (Also a candidate for rocks and lemon.)
I usually buy the Italian Carpano Vermouth Bianco, but once in a while I go for the French version: Dolin Blanc. So look at this way. You have your dry vermouth — the stuff of martinis. And your have your sweet vermouth — the stuff of Negronis. But here we have something in the middle. A “white” vermouth with a touch of sweetness. But this sweetness is a full flavor of its own. In the “old days” you could only find this in Europe. Now the liquor stores have gotten smart. And we are the lucky ones for that. Another drink for rocks and a bit of lemon before dinner. (This could turn out to be your absolute favorite.)
On the other side of dinner look for a digestivo called “amaro.” There are many. Amaro actually means bitter, but these are very easy to swallow. It’s the taste of a bouquet of unknown and foreign herbs all corralled together to give your taste buds a unique ride. Taken just straight (maybe a bit less than a shot glass quantity) after dinner. The digestivo name is quite literal: it helps you to digest.
Speaking of after dinner: where’s the Sambuca? (Although my dad would sometimes take a nip in the morning to “clear his throat.”) This is the relative to anisette — if you remember that old classic served after dinner at Italian restaurants (and homes). It’s anise-flavored liqueur that’s a bit syrupy and sweet (yet not as sweet as anisette). I used to pour it into my espresso instead of sugar. Espresso and Sambuca are a splendid marriage — the Italian version of Irish coffee (which I LOVE). But more usually sipped in a cordial glass after dinner. Or order it on the rocks any time just for fun. They have finally stocked the black Sambuca locally. It’s as dark as ink and almost a shock when you pour it. But pure magic.
Grappa exists to knock your socks off. It’s what Italians make from the leftover skins, seeds, and stems of winemaking (why waste anything?). Therefore there are as many grappas as there are grapes and then some. They come in many flavors, but usually grappa is clear white (and quite high in alcohol), and packs a punch. I call it the moonshine of Italy. It’s been known to cure colds, settle stomachs, warm an icy day, and bring on a rosy complexion. I’m currently slowly rationing the gorgeous skinny bottle I brought back from Italy. This one is prosecco grappa from a wonderful wine tour we took at Frozza vineyards in the Veneto.
Sip on any of these drinks and Italy will make an appearance in your soul. Try whispering an Italian expression while sipping: “Mmmm. Molto buono!” You will feel like Sophia Loren. Or Marcello Mastroianni. And you might actually hear a careening vespa in the distance.