Memorie di Angelina is a food blog, of course, but in Italian culinary tradition you cannot separate food from drink. While Italians are not heavy drinkers as a rule, it is also true that, traditionally speaking at least, a meal is not a meal without a glass or two of wine. Spirits also play a role before and after the meal. Before a meal, an aperitivo is often drunk to stimulate the appetite, afterwards a digestivo to aid digestion. In today’s post we’ll take a look at the first category.
As elsewhere, modern Italians are not adverse to have a flute of prosecco or a glass of wine or even a beer before a meal, but the most traditional aperitivo is vermouth, an aperitif wine that has been fortified with brandy or other spirit and infused with the flavors of herbs, spices and fruit. The tradition of flavoring wines goes all the way back to the ancient Romans, who liked to sweeten their wines with honey, but modern vermouth got its start in the Piemonte region of Italy, in the late 18th century, and then spread throughout Italy. Closely related to vermouth are a class of aperitif wines with a touch of bitterness, flavored with the bark of the quinine tree, sometimes called quiquina or americano. And then there are certain bitter liqueurs, which as a class as usually drunk after dinner as digestivi, that fall into the aperitivo category (or do double duty as aperitivo and digestivo), either on their own or as part of a cocktail.
Aperitivi are typically accompanied by little nibbles that Italians call stuzzichini—olives, nuts, canapés, salumi, cheeses, foccaccia, grissini and so on. Back in the day, our Sunday dinners at my grandparents always started with a glass of vermouth, accompanied by a wedge of provolone cheese and her signature fried vegetables. While in most of Italy this kind of finger food traditionally only served to stave off hunger and tipsiness until dinner time, the Venetians have a tradition of enjoying a more substantial tapas-like series of small plates known as cicchetti. And I understand that in recent years the aperitivo has morphed into a veritable smorgasbord known as the apericena (a neo-fusion of aperitivo and cena, Italian for dinner), popular with restaurants as a convenient way to use up leftovers from lunch and with cost-conscious consumers, who can dine at a far more modest cost than a proper dinner.
Vermouth and its cousins the americano and quiquina are fortified wines. That is to say, they are wines that have been ‘spiked’ with spirits, usually brandy, to up the alcohol content.
Appearances notwithstanding, vermouths are (with rare exceptions) made from white wine; the caramel color of red vermouths comes not from the wine but from added caramel (aka burnt sugar). Besides being fortified, vermouths are also aromatized—infused with botanical herbs that, once upon a time, were said to have medicinal and appetite-enhancing properties. Italian vermouth was first made in Torino in 1786 by Antonio Benedetto Carpano, and the Carpano brand still exists today, producing some of the finest aperitivi.
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino is a sweet vermouth in the classic Piedmontese tradition. It may be closest thing you can buy in the States to the original vermouth, as the classic Carpano vermouth is not sold here. Vermouth di Torino is the only Italian vermouth that enjoys a coveted dominazione di origine controllata, and like a fine DOC wine, it is has an enticing complexity of flavors both bitter and sweet, earthy and refined. Once you try the real thing, you may find it hard to go back to more commercial forms of vermouth.
Carpano Antica Formula claims to be the original vermouth invented by Carpano. Its label is a replica of the one placed on the original vermouth bottles in 1786. Other sources say it is a modern vermouth, introduced in the 1990s, but based on an old recipe. Either way, it is delicious. Laced with vanilla root, like the vermouth di Torino, it is wonderfully complex, but it is gentler on the tongue, with a strong vanilla foretaste.
Punt e Mes, meaning ‘a point and a half’, is a kind of pre-made cocktail: ‘one point’ of vermouth mixed a ‘half point’ of bitters. One of my personal favorite aperitivi, I find its intriguing mix of sweet and bitter flavors hard to resist. According to one story, it was invented by the Carpano distillery on the occasion of an usually spike in the price of their stock.
Martini (formerly Martini & Rossi)and Cinzano, the two most popular brands of sweet red vermouth in the modern style, are stand bys in many Italian and Italian-American homes. (Indeed, the name martini has become synonymous with sweet vermouth in Italy; if you say “I’ll have a martini”, that’s what you’re likely to get—not the gin-based American cocktail.) These vermouths lack the complexity of the aforementioned brands, but they are eminently drinkable all the same, at a fraction of the price.
Other aperitif wines
Similar to vermouths, these aperitif wines are infused with quinine root which gives them a subtle astringency. Like vermouths, they are typically aromatized with botanical herbs as well. Far less popular in the US than vermouths, perhaps because their taste are a bit too ‘medicinal’ for American tastes, they are definitely worth a try.
Barolo Chinato is, to my mind, the king of aperitivi. Another aperitivo that can claim a denominazione d’origine controllata e garantita (DOCG) designation, Barolo chinato is made from the noble Barolo wine aromatized with cardamom, rhubarb and quinine. It can also be drunk after dinner, and is said to have a special affinity for chocolate. It was originally served mulled (ie, gently warmed) as a curative for the common cold, but personally, I don’t wait to feel ill to enjoy it.
Cocchi Americano is the classic aromatized wine in the americano style, first produced in 1891. Unlike vermouth, it is often drunk cold, with a spritz to open up its bouquet of aromatic flavors, and perhaps an orange slice.
Barolo Chinato and Cocchi Americano can be hard to find in the US, but the French Dubonnet and Lillet, also aromatized wines infused with quinine, are fairly well distributed. They are quite a bit milder than their Italian cousins, however.
Although bitters, or amari, are generally reserved for after dinner drinks or digestivi, as they are said to have digestive properties, but a handful of amari are usually served as aperitivi, either on their own or as a cocktail ingredient:
Cynar is a modern liqueur made with—believe it or not—artichokes, but don’t expect (or fear?) a strong artichoke flavor. It is infused with 13 herbs and spices which lend it a distinctive, earthy taste. It does double duty as an aperitivo as well as a digestivo. Another one of my personal faves.
Zucca is, despite its name, not made from pumpkin but from rhubard, infused with cardamom and other spices. While most other aperitivi hale from Piemonte, Zucca was invented in Milan and is featured at an eponymous bar in the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele.
Campari is a world-famous bitter liqueur, perhaps the bitterest bitter around. Invented in Novara in the 19th century, it originally got its characteristic deep red color from crushed cochineal insects (Campari stopped using the insects in 2006). It is a bit too bitter, to my taste, to enjoy by itself. In summer, of course, it is customary to cut it with soda and add a wedge of lemon or orange to make a refreshing Campari soda. In cooler weather, you can enjoy Campari mixed with vermouth and soda to make an Americano; substituting the soda with a shot of gin, you’ll have what may well be the most iconic Italian cocktail of all, the Negroni (Recipe below.)
Low and Non-Alcoholic Aperitivi
Not all aperitivi are alcoholic. Aperol provides an alternative for those who enjoy an aperitivo but don’t like the alcohol content. It contains only 11% alcohol. It tastes strongly of citrus, much like Campari, and is often mixed with soda and a slice of lemon or with prosecco, to make the ubiquitous summer cocktail called the Aperol Spritz. Other low or non-alcohol aperitivi include Sanbitter and Crodino.