In the small town of Amelia, among the cypress-spiked Umbrian hills, there stands a café that appears wholly unremarkable. It is called Caffé Grande, and is the only proper café in the center of the sloping medieval town. Walk inside and you’ll be greeted by the kindly Massimo Perotti, a one-time pop singer and long-time barman, who runs Caffé Grande with his family. The bar is truly for locals, not dressed up for tourists, and that is one of the reasons why it is an ideal place to examine the vast wall of exotic-looking liquor bottles that range along the mirrored wall behind the counter. Walk into most any bar or café in Italy, and the same wall of jewel-colored bottles will stare out at you, promising delights but also intimidating for the uninitiated.
Italians enjoy aperitivi, pre-dinner drinks, from the end of work until the start of dinner. Go out to dinner with Italian friends, and your evening will likely begin at a bar like this one, chatting over drinks before heading out to eat. What follows is a field guide to those exotic bottles.
Light Sparkling Drinks
Most Italians you see at these non-touristy bars will order an amaro, a bitter-flavored lightly-alcoholic drink that is refreshing in the summer months. Campari Soda or Aperol Spritz are two favorites, the former being Campari liquor mixed with seltzer, the latter Aperol liquor mixed with white wine or prosecco. Of the two, Aperol Spritz is the easier introduction, more citrusy and less bitter than Campari. These drinks really taste bitter, and sometimes don’t suit non-Italian palates, but they are classics and worth trying. Other brands that you’ll come across within the same general category include Martini (which comes in dry, sweet, and medium) and Cinzano. Both are made in Turin and are vermouths (the sweeter element of a gin martini). Campari, likewise is a red vermouth, and it is the maker of Aperol, a product flavored with bitter orange, rhubarb, and gentian. Most have a low alcohol level of around 11%, akin to wine, so they won’t knock you off your feet before a meal.
Grappa and Hard Liqueurs
Grappa is a catch-all term for clear schnapps-like liquors made from the discarded elements of grapes (peels, seeds, stems) in the wine-making process, fermented into a sharp, rough, hard alcohol. Newer incarnations of classic grappa are made from the grapes themselves, or come from a single grape type (Barolo, for instance), and are sold at higher prices as gourmet, sipping liquors. These are effective, but tend to burn going down. A lighter variation is limoncello, grappa flavored with lemons that is a product of the Amalfi coast, where Nostrano lemons grow large, gnarled, and flavorful. Maraschino is not actually Italian, but has its origins in the coastal Croatian city of Zadar. This is a rich, cherry-flavored liqueur that is syrupy sweet (you may have eaten Maraschino cherries, soaked in the liqueur, atop an ice cream sundae). Nocino is another member of this category, but instead of lemons or cherries, it is made from unripe green walnuts which can be fermented.
This category of drinks is meant to do just what the title suggests—aid digestion, often by figuratively burning a whole into whatever you just consumed. Most are herb-based, and would be considered in the same category as the popular Jagermeister. Most of the odder-looking bottles that line back shelves of Italian bars are types of digestives, or digestive. Strega is easy to spot, an alarmingly bright yellow that draws its flavor from herbs, sugar, and saffron. The taste is reminiscent of anice (liquorice). Sambuca has a similar taste, and is most frequently consumed in a small hot espresso, as café corretto.
A category known as “bitters,” these drinks are likewise considered digestive aids, to be consumed after a large meal. They all boast secret recipes that combine herbs, alcohol, and occasionally-surprising roots and vegetables. If you like the general category, it is worth trying a handful of them. Amaro, Ramazzotti, Averna, Fernet Branca (which boasts 40 herbs in its recipe, including precious saffron), Lucana, and more may be found in most Italian cafes. They do pack a whollop, at around 40% alcohol (or higher).
The Weird Ones
The drinks discussed thus far may be new to you, but they all sound (relatively) normal. There are, however, some more unusual Italian drinks that are worth trying, though they may well be an acquired taste. Frangelico looks odd, but tastes delicious—it’s one of the easiest of these drinks to immediately like. It is hazelnut flavored, and comes from an 18th century monastic recipe from the Piedmont region. It will recall popular drinks like Bailey’s Irish Cream or Kahlua. It has a recognizable bottle, shaped like a monk, complete with a rope around it, like a sort of belt. Cynar is probably the most infamous, because it is flavored with artichokes. No, that’s not a typo—it’s an artichoke-flavored liquor. Drinking it is not akin to an artichoke smoothie, but artichoke is one of 13 plants and herbs that comprise its secret recipe. It tastes a bit like cola, bittersweet, and often mixed with orange juice.
Next time you visit Amelia’s Caffe Grande, or indeed any bar in Italy, why not throw caution to the wind and try one (or more) of these truly Italian aperitivi, liquori, amari, and digestivi? Viva la vita italiana!