The Favorite Drink Of Italian Grandpas Gets An American Revival | WYPR

The Favorite Drink Of Italian Grandpas Gets An American Revival

Nov 25, 2016
Originally published on November 25, 2016 6:29 pm

In this season of indulgence (and overindulgence), some people will turn to the treadmill, while others turn to the Pepto-Bismol. Author Brad Thomas Parsons will reach for the bottle — specifically, a bottle full of a liqueur called amaro, which people have used as a digestive aid for centuries.

It's an herbal recipe, and "it's actually bittersweet," Parsons says.

"The bittering agents in it are actually helping your digestive system," he explains. "Four out of five doctors may not agree with everything that's working in there, but trust me."

Parsons, an expert on bitters and a James Beard Award-winning writer, has spent years digging into the history and culture of the concoction for his latest book, Amaro: The Spirited World Of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs. Amaro is super-popular in parts of Europe, but not as well known on this side of the Atlantic.

"When I was in Italy researching the book and interviewing producers, I would go into stores, [and] they would have walls, floor to ceiling, of all these different amaro that I couldn't get in the States," he says.

In the U.S., Fernet-Branca is an amaro popular among discerning mixologists. More familiar to most of us is Jagermeister, that bad-decision mainstay downed by the shot in every college-town dive bar. (While many Italian producers would suggest that only the spirits produced in Italy are amari, Parsons suggests all bittersweet liqueurs fall under the category.)

An Italian family tradition transplanted to D.C.

Parsons wanted to show NPR a slightly more grown-up amaro experience, so he took All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro on a tasting tour at Don Ciccio & Figli. It's an unassuming establishment located in a Washington, D.C., warehouse with mermaid silhouettes painted on the walls. The air smells like cinnamon, eucalyptus and lemon peel, and the space is cluttered with wooden barrels and rows of glass bottles full of the rich auburn liquid made by proprietor Francesco Amodeo.

"This is actually our little house, where we live and sleep and produce some unique products," Amodeo says. He comes to the trade naturally: His family used to make amaro on the Amalfi Coast of Italy.

"Our traditions started back in 1883," he says.

But the Amodeo family was forced to shut down its operation in 1980, when an earthquake crushed the distillery that had been a going concern for a century. Thirty years later, Francesco reopened the family business in Washington. He says he's working not just to bring a bit of Italy to the U.S. capital, but also to give the world something else to talk about when they talk about D.C.

"Not just politics or the current topics of the day," he says. "What's D.C. about? Oh, I can get great amaros in this city."

Washington's flourishing foodie scene has been in the news lately, with an even dozen D.C. restaurants being awarded coveted Michelin Guide stars. Amodeo says Americans more generally are setting novel standards for how to drink amaro.

"In Italy ... it's your grandpa and your father's shot," he says. Italians may just drink it at the end of the meal. Americans are using it creatively, in cocktails.

Amaros from all over, and what to make with them

Amodeo and Parsons show off about a dozen different bottles, each with an eye-catching label. They come from here and there on the map — the Italian coast, the Swiss Alps, even Charleston, S.C.

Then Parsons picks up a tiny paper-wrapped bottle called Underberg.

"Underberg is a German digestif that's been around since 1846," he explains. "We're going to take a simple bar straw, stick it in there and take it down in one suck."

(There were productivity-related consequences, it should be noted, to this approach.)

Novices might want to start with Parsons' go-to drink: an amaro and tonic, garnished with lime.

"[That's] what I was drinking all summer for my pre-dinner drink."

For these chillier autumn days, Amodeo has another recipe.

"It's called the Alexis. It's one ounce each of bourbon, Amaro delle Sirene and then Nocino, which is our walnut liqueur."

Mix those three on ice, he says, then either strain it and serve straight up or put it in a highball and serve on the rocks. Either way it goes nicely with an orange twist.

As for the appropriate toast for trying out an amaro cocktail?

"I say, 'Stay bitter,' " Parsons laughs.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In this season of overindulgence, some people will turn to the treadmill, others to Pepto-Bismol. Brad Thomas Parsons will reach for the bottle - specifically, a beverage that people have used as a digestive aid for centuries called amaro.

BRAD THOMAS PARSONS: It's actually bittersweet and herbal. And it's helping - the bittering agents in it are actually helping your digestion systems. So 4 out of 5 doctors may not agree with everything that's working in there...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PARSONS: ...But trust me.

SHAPIRO: Parsons has spent years digging into the history and culture of these drinks for his new book "Amaro: The Spirited World Of Bittersweet Herbal Liqueurs." He met us at a distillery here in Washington for a tasting. We'll get to that in a moment.

PARSONS: When I was in Italy researching the book and interviewing producers, I would go into stores. They would have walls floor-to-ceiling of all these different amaro that I couldn't get in the States.

SHAPIRO: If people listening to this are wondering, have I ever had an amaro? What are some of the most familiar specific names that people might recognize?

PARSONS: Fernet-Branca is probably one of...

SHAPIRO: Fernet-Branca's a little bit inside baseball. I would say even more common than Fernet-Branca...

PARSONS: OK.

SHAPIRO: ...Is Jagermeister.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARSONS: I was trying to, you know, elevate our conversation, Ari.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PARSONS: But if I - yes, I will admit whether I knew it or not, Jagermeister was my first experience to amaro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Parsons wanted us to have a slightly-more-grown-up amaro experience than the cliche Jagermeister shot at a college bar. Which is why he told us to meet him here, at a place called Don Ciccio & Figli.

FRANCESCO AMODEO: The company's called Don Ciccio & Figli.

SHAPIRO: It's an unassuming warehouse with mermaid silhouettes painted on the walls. The air smells like cinnamon, eucalyptus and lemon peel. There are wooden barrels and rows of glass bottles full of auburn liquid.

AMODEO: This is our actually little house, where we live and sleep and produce some unique products.

SHAPIRO: Francesco Amodeo owns this distillery. His family used to make amaro on the Amalfi Coast of Italy.

AMODEO: Our tradition started back in 1883. And our family...

SHAPIRO: Wow, 1883?

AMODEO: 1883. And my family closed the business in 1980 due to an earthquake.

SHAPIRO: The earthquake crushed the distillery that had been running for a century. Thirty years later, Amodeo reopened the Italian family business here in Washington.

AMODEO: What we're trying to do is to bring Italy around the world. And what we're trying to do personally is to bring D.C. around the world. Giving something else to talk about, not just politics or the current topics of the day. What's D.C. about? Oh, I can get great amaros in this city.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: How much do you have to educate people on how to use this? Because if they buy a small batch gin, they know how to make a gin and tonic or a martini. How much do people know how to use an amaro?

AMODEO: I think now they're coming along. I was reading an interview from some Italian producers. They were thanking American people that started to use amaro differently. Because in Italy, you just drink that at the end of the meal. It's your grandpa or your father's shot.

SHAPIRO: Italians may just drink it as a shot at the end of the meal. Americans are using it more creatively, like in cocktails.

Can you each recommend a cocktail using amaro that somebody might easily make at home?

AMODEO: Yeah. So we have this cocktail now it's, called the Alexis. It's just a blend of equal parts. So one ounce each of bourbon, Amaro delle Sirene and then Nocino, which is our walnut liqueur. So you can just simply mix them and stir them on ice and serve it either up or on the rocks with an orange twist.

SHAPIRO: Brad, do you want to recommend a cocktail?

PARSONS: Yeah. I would say amaro and tonic and a lime was what I was drinking all summer for my pre-dinner drink.

SHAPIRO: Enough talking, should we try some tasting?

PARSONS: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Parsons takes us to a table with about a dozen unopened bottles, each with an eye-catching label. These come from the Italian coast, the Swiss Alps even, Charleston, S.C. And here's where it gets a bit hazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Amaro Nonino, Lucano, Sfumato. I mean, it's like you just want to pronounce these names.

PARSONS: For me this is a medium amaro, so I like to call like a Goldilocks amaro.

SHAPIRO: OK. Let me taste this. Herbal, slightly spicy, a little bit bitter.

PARSONS: This is a specific style. Rabarbaro, which means...

SHAPIRO: Rabarbaro is the name of this style?

PARSONS: Rhubarb is usually a key ingredient.

SHAPIRO: Oh, my - this is like not - none of - this is totally different from the other things we've tasted so far.

PARSONS: So try this.

SHAPIRO: And this one really looks cloudy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Before we left, Brad Thomas Parsons wanted to show us one last amaro, a tiny bottle wrapped in paper called under Underberg.

PARSONS: Underberg is a German digestif. It's been around since 1846. And then essentially we're going to take a simple bar straw, stick it in there and take it down in one suck, so to speak.

SHAPIRO: All right. Brad, Francesco, are you going to join me and do this? What do you say when you're toasting with amaro?

PARSONS: I say stay bitter.

SHAPIRO: Stay bitter.

PARSONS: It's like a wild toboggan ride.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: That was Brad Thomas Parsons, author of the book "Amaro: The Spirited World Of Bittersweet Herbal Liqueurs," with cocktails, recipes and formulas. Also, Francesco Amodeo, owner of the D.C. distillery Don Ciccio & Figli. Who, by the way, says he can't keep any of his amaro in stock.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: (Sighs).

PARSONS: See? You're feeling bright and alert.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Yeah. Good thing I don't have to accomplish anything else today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.