If life hands you lemons, and we mean really big ones with rinds the size of a grapefruit, make limoncello.
For anyone unfamiliar with this old Italian proverb, residents of the area around Sorrento began steeping castoff peels in alcohol centuries ago, while more modest cultures settled for lemonade. The resulting liqueur vaguely resembles lemon drops or, according to a guy named Evan trying out the stuff at Arcodoro & Pomodoro, "like lemon iced cake from the grocery store."
Hmmm...we should find out where he shops.
Dallas barhoppers are somewhat familiar with this versatile citrus infusion, particularly as an element in summertime martinis. Yet many of Italy's traditional liqueurs languish on shelves at local establishments. Strega, for instance, is a sticky concoction unpleasant enough that one sip will encourage even the most ardent nightlife columnist to embrace sobriety. "I've been open since November 2004, and this is the only bottle of Strega I have," says Daniele Puleo, chef-owner of Daniele Osteria. He attempted to pour us a shot, but we suddenly remembered a meeting with our beloved editor and quickly scattered. Galliano's tall and slender bottle is instantly recognizable, and several cocktails call for a splash of the pale golden alcohol. Still, complains Lorenzo Delorenzo, owner of Bellini, while waving the thing in our faces, "I've had this for three years and no one has ordered it."
Why should they? Galliano smacks vaguely of something you pick up at Walgreen's to soothe a sore throat. Indeed, several of Italy's vaunted liqueurs possess a strong medicinal flavor.
An example of this aspect of native alcohols is Fernet Branca. The end product of an herbal infusion, it packs more bitterness than a year's worth of Bill O'Reilly commentary. "It tastes like medicine, literally," explains Gaetano Riccardi of (naturally) Riccardi's. He claims a pharmacy exists in his Old Country hometown where they sell packets of the same herbal mix to cure common ailments. Over six years spent staggering from bar to club to wherever we find ourselves face down in the early morning hours, the Burning Question crew has bumped into only three people who enjoy sipping Fernet Branca.
Well, bartenders at Meridian Room keep a few bottles on hand for the owner's use, or so they say. We didn't stick around to find out what kind of person sips the stinging blend on a regular basis. The other two are husband and wife bar owners and cocktail experts Charlie Papaceno and Louise Owens of Windmill Lounge.
They'll drink just about anything.
Lest you think we've answered this week's question already, Fernet Branca represents only the extreme of Italy's bitter herbal liqueurs. Averna, a Sicilian favorite, softens the sharp flavors with a tug of natural sugars. When we sampled a dozen or so examples of the country's craftsmanship at Riccardi's one afternoon, Averna reminded us of cough syrup for kids. You know--nasty but somewhat palatable. Campari is more approachable.
So why aren't Italian liqueurs more popular in Dallas? Classic drinking habits were born in a world more accustomed to seasons and scarcity. Grappa is an example of this, drawn originally from the last pressing of grapes and reeking of stems and skin. Each region used local products to create unique alcoholic drinks, such as Sardinia's mirto, a viscous and pleasing nightcap distilled from myrtle berries. Rules developed over time, limiting consumption of certain items to aperitif or digestive--before and after dinner, respectively. If hard drinkers merely wanted to blind themselves, excessive amounts of wine or beer would serve the purpose. In a world of abundance, mass appeal dominates. "I don't know that [Italian liqueurs] turn people off," says Matt Tobin, owner of Vickery Park. "They just don't know about them." Indeed, when Nicola's opened in Plano, they offered a menu of classic Italian cocktails and then scrapped the list after experiencing resounding ambivalence.
"There's certainly no advertising," Tobin continues. "Why does Grey Goose sell?"
In other words, even simple mind-numbing spirits like vodka have been dumbed down and upscaled for the reasonably affluent masses. But Fernet Branca refuses to change.
"Dallas is a different crowd," Delorenzo agrees. "They go with the one flavor that's trendy."
Ah, but tastes in Italy are evolving as well. "Italian kids don't drink much liquor," Riccardi points out. Just as Irish twentysomethings scorn Guinness in favor of the more plebeian Budweiser, the younger generations on the peninsula are turning away from tradition. Puleo believes some of the great names from the past would end up as mere oddities if Italian-American immigrants would let them die a peaceful death. "Italy is nothing like it was 50 years ago," he says. "But these people don't want to see it change. They're stuck in the 1950s."
Despite the evolution of taste, it's worthwhile to sample some of these classics once in a while, even if just to commune with our roots. Grappa is a Burning Question crew favorite. Bigger men--and we mean in terms of height and weight--back away from us when we order the firebrand liquor. Francesco Farris, chef at Arcordoro & Pomodoro, suggests novices start with examples distilled from softer, sweeter muscato grapes. Eventually, he says, they learn that "grappa makes an evening perfect."
Makes you forget your date's name too.
Sambuca, Frangelico, Amaretto and the bartender's favorite, Tuaca, address our desire for sweet and comforting touches. Pouring black Sambuca into a half-cup of espresso "corrects," or eases, the harsher edges of the strong coffee. Swishing grappa through the dregs of an espresso shot opens up and alters both ingredients.
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There are others worth a try, too, such as Cynar, a well-balanced liqueur distilled from artichokes and found at Arcodoro.
Or you can try an impromptu Italian suicide punch, as we did on our visit to Riccardi's. After sampling the full range of liqueurs available at the Quadrangle establishment, someone--and we believe it was the restaurateur--suggested mixing all the remains into one glass. Thirteen different flavors, from the nasty, physician-inspired Fernet Branca to pleasant and nutty Frangelico, swirled together into one ill-considered cocktail.
Wasn't bad, as far as we can remember--although we've forgotten much of what we could remember. But as Tobin explains, most people don't care what they pound down. Things like grappa, Averna and Sambuca were made to sip and linger. They are meant to prepare the appetite or conclude a meal in civility. At most bars, however, patrons "just want to get drunk."
That and avoid TABC terror.