A Bitter Lesson to Learn

The quick digest on Italian amari

Italian bitters (a/k/a amari or amaro) are a point of pride among native Italians; they swear by the acrid-tasting liqueurs' ability to aid in digestion. There are an unbelievable number of types, with each producer guarding their own secret recipe like a precious treasure. All, however, are a combination of herbs, roots, and flowers that are infused into a distillate of neutral (i.e., flavorless) grain alcohol, grappa, brandy, or fermented and distilled beet molasses. (Vermouth is often grouped with amari, but it differs in that it is an undistilled wine, which has a shorter shelf life than bitters.) Fernet Branca—one of the more popular types of amari—is actually an amalgamation of an astounding 40-odd macerated herbs and spices, aged in an oak barrel for more than a year in the Italian region of Lombardy.
Enjoying Cynar outside at Lupa
photo: Corina Zappia
Enjoying Cynar outside at Lupa


For bitter lessons:

Lupa and Batali's pizzeria Otto focus on a large selection of amaro, carrying as many available in the states (about 22 brands).

Enoteca I Trulli only serves a few, although their nearby wine shop, carries 17.

The best place, however, to shop for amaro is in the Bronx at Arthur Avenue's Mt. Carmel Wine, also home to an impressive selection of Limoncello.

But amaro can be found even at plain old liquor stores like Astor Wines, where Shapiro shops.

The flavors vary widely, depending on the particular combination of ingredients: Fernet Branca has an intensely medicinal, bitter taste and smell. The Bolognese Montenegro, a lighter, sweet amaro flavored with vanilla, is called a "half-bitter," and thus a good choice for beginners. Another noteworthy option is Cynar, which is made with artichokes and catches people's attention because of the bottle's gorgeous label. "They're all very different; in Nocino [Riserva], they use walnuts, which lends a rich, nutty flavor," says Zach Shapiro, wine director for Lupa. "Borsci, it's like butterscotch-good with vanilla ice cream." At Lupa, they often suggest particular pairings of after-dinner digestivos with desserts. "It's cool to play with the flavors . . . like, this amaro goes really well with this gelato." (Unlike the others, Campari, the most recognizable Italian bitter, is served more as an aperitif with soda than a post-supper digestive.)