When in Rome
Italians drink with a purpose. In this wine-soaked country, no dinner is complete without a bottle of vino. But just as important to the Italian way of life is the aperitivo and the digestivo—the typically bitter drinks that precede and conclude a meal. By now, you're undoubtedly an expert at sipping Negronis and spritzes, but with the ever-growing popularity of Italian bitters and amari, it's officially time to expand your horizons and do as the Italians do.
Move Over, Happy Hour
The first concept you need to get acquainted with is aperitivo hour, which occurs in the evening after the workday but before—and separate from—dinner.
"For Italians, it's just the start of the evening, whereas in America, it's the end of the day," says Naren Young, partner and head bartender at New York's Caffe Dante, which won the 2017 Spirited Award for Best American Restaurant Bar at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. This is when you'll find Italians drinking low-ABV aperitivo bitters like Campari, Aperol and Contratto, combined with sparkling wine, fizzy water and/or vermouth. Think an Aperol Spritz or Americano.
Aperitif cocktails | Photo: Contratto
There are "two different types of aperitivo products: wine based and alcohol [spirit] based," Roberta Mariani, global brand ambassador for Martini, explains. Wine-based Italian aperitivi often (but not always) fall into the category of vermouth. Aperitivo bitters tend to be spirit-based liqueurs. Whatever they're drinking, Italians don't mess around with aperitivo hour without snacks, like pistachios, olives and chips.
"This is a timeless philosophy that's been going on in Europe for centuries," Young says. "There's a lot more civility and elegance. There's no rush. No one's there to get hammered." And luckily for all of us, Young believes we're at the precipice of a shift toward aperitivo hour catching on outside of Italy.
He may very well be correct. In addition to Dante, successful aperitivo-centric bars have opened in major cocktail cities across the globe, like London's Bar Termini and Sydney's Maybe Frank. "I love the fact that even in a country like Australia with a very strong drinking culture (and get-drunk culture), this style of drinking is slowly getting accepted," Maybe Frank co-owner Stefano Catino says.
After the Party . . .
After dinner, Italians reach for an amaro—and here's where the nomenclature gets a bit confusing. Amaro means "bitter" in Italian, but unlike aperitivi bitters, which are typically red or orange and never consumed after dinner, amari are dark, herbal and often served to complete a meal without a mixer—chilled and/or over ice. A growing list of favorites making their way stateside includes Averna, Cynar, Montenegro and Fernet-Branca.
These herbal digestives aren't reserved exclusively for after dinner either. Italians consume amari strategically all day long. "Choosing what to drink and when is based on the different times of the day," Nicholas Pinna, bar director at the Hotel Locarno in Rome, says. A common midday option in Italy is referred to as caffè corretto, or "corrected coffee." After downing an espresso, an amaro might be used to "wash out" the remnants left in the cup. And there are certain amari with coffee or coffee-like flavors that are favored for this occasion.
Part of the reason bitters and amari-based cocktails are gaining so much traction outside Italy is because they make a "great base as a mixer," says Giuseppe Gallo, Italian spirits expert and creator of the aperitivo Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, which won the 2017 Spirited Award for Best New Spirit. Sure, cocktail bars in the U.S. and around the world have been using amari for years. But there are now several popular cocktails that contain amari, including variations on classics like the Manhattan (the Little Italy, the Bywater) and the Last Word (the Division Bell, the Paper Plane).
Sparkling Cynar cocktail | Photo: Tasting Table
And the influence goes both ways. "Slowly, the American influence to mix [amari] in cocktails is starting to arrive in Italy, too," Gallo says. The Americano (Campari, vermouth and soda) originated when Americans in Italy began requesting the addition of soda in their Mi-To aperitivo (which was just Campari and vermouth) more than a century ago. Indeed, cocktail bars—which aren't a traditional establishment in Italy—are beginning to pop up all over the country, though they remain something of a curiosity to locals. "When the Jerry Thomas Project [cocktail bar] opened in Rome [in 2009], it attracted many people, as they were curious to understand the speakeasy concept," Pinna says. "In fact, many other speakeasy bars opened to satisfy the growing curiosity of the public."
Don't worry though. Pinna continues, "Regardless of this, Italians have solid drinking habits that go way back in time, and I strongly believe that this will not change, despite the recent presence of the American cocktail culture."
Follow their lead and start drinking bitters and amari in cocktails, with soda or on their own. Use the guide below to get started.
Please check your inbox to verify your email address.