Edible Monterey Bay

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BEHIND THE BOTTLE

AMARO AMBASSADOR

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARGAUX GIBBONS

Bartender Francis Verrall showcases the bittersweet Italian digestivo at Pacific Grove’s Mezzaluna


Watching the regulars at Pacific Grove’s Mezzaluna Pasteria & Mozzarella Bar reveals a ritual.

After enjoying chef-owner Soerke Peters’ menu of Italian-inspired charcuterie and pastas, diners enlist the services of head bartender Francis Verrall. After speaking together in hushed tones, Verrall returns to the bar and pensively peruses the shelves. He unscrews the cap of one bottle, takes a whiff and returns it to the shelf. He inspects another and another, but puts them both back. Finally, his eyes perk up. He brings a bottle to the bar and pours its sepia solution into a delicate tulipshaped glass.

A bouquet of aromas begins to blossom. One sip tantalizes the palate. A smack of sugar and bright floral notes lands first, then builds to bitter orange peel and licorice. Luscious cola and molasses linger at the finish.

What is this mysterious elixir? Amaro.

Amaro (or amari, plural) is a class of Italian bittersweet herbal liqueurs, the origin of which dates back more than 200 years. It starts with a neutral base (either a spirit or wine) infused with a variety of botanicals—herbs and flowers, citrus and bark, seeds and spices. Every amaro recipe is distinct, a proprietary secret passed down through generations of distillers, its flavors reflective of the terroir of the region where it’s crafted. In southern Italy, where citrus groves are abundant, amari tend toward the sweeter side. In the north, amari carry fragrant, herbaceous notes from the flora growing in the shadow of the Alps.

Amaro was first created for medicinal purposes, and—like many spirits— owes its origin to medieval monks. Tending the garden, they had an intimate knowledge of local botany, which proved instrumental in crafting restorative tonics. The earliest amari served as digestive aids to settle the stomach after a meal. (At the time, poor preservation of food led to many ailments and natural herbs brought soothing relief.)

Growing demand in the 19th century pivoted production of amaro from the church to commercial operations, giving rise to the amaro we know today. Sugar became an integral part of the recipe to soften the bitter herbs, making it more palatable—and popular—as an after-dinner drink, or digestivo. With their medicinal applications, many amari remained legal during Prohibition, often with a doctor’s prescription. After World War II, amaro shed its reputation as a solely curative concoction and became something to sip and savor simply for pleasure.

APPRECIATING AMARO

Amaro surged in popularity over the past decade. The obligatory bottle or two used to sit obscured behind more popular spirits, but now bars in major cities proudly spotlight their bitter boozes for eager customers. Verrall recognizes bartenders helped foster this newfound appreciation for amaro in the United States. “Diners ask, ‘Oh, what do you like?’ and we answer, ‘Amaro.’” On their recommendation, Americans are discovering the bitter Italian favorite.

“I think people are more adventurous these days,” observes Verrall. “People’s tastes are changing, especially with bitter things.” He cites diners’ appetite for bitter chocolate, bitter greens, bitter beer and bitter cocktails. Verrall takes pride in his role as amaro ambassador and steward for the storied history of the bitter beverage. He’s not just awakening palates to new bittersweet flavors, he’s often helping diners rediscover family traditions. “With the connection Monterey has to Italy, I’ve seen a lot of younger people interested in amaro because their grandparents drank it,” he says. “They want to try it because it’s part of their heritage.”

Verrall stocks what’s likely the largest selection of amari in Monterey County. Mezzaluna’s bar boasts 35 amaro options and Verrall aspires to grow the collection even further to 50. “You find something you love and really go for it. I’d like to be known for having a crazy selection of amaro.” He’s quick to remind that amaro isn’t a singular spirit, but a spectrum of styles. “Amari come in so many different flavors.”

Light amari—Meletti, Nonino and Montenegro—are citrus forward and make for easy sipping, while others—Averna and Lucano—have a bit more body to them with darker color and more alcohol. Herbs dominate Bràulio and other Alpine amari, while vegetables lend bitter notes to Cynar, made from artichokes.

Others may be smoky, like rabarbaros made with dried Chinese rhubarb, and evoke comparisons to mezcal or Scotch. Fernets are brawny versions with higher proof and bold notes. This style enjoys celebrity status now thanks to the Fernet-Branca brand, a bartender favorite (see sidebar page 46).

Amaro translates to “bitter” in Italian, but don’t confuse amari with bitters. Bitters—like Angostura or Peychaud’s—are intense tinctures of alcohol and botanicals that accent a beverage, but amari are milder (and, unlike bitters, potable) thanks to lower alcohol by volume and the addition of sugar.

There’s a whole world of bitter liqueurs beyond amaro too. Herbaceous German Jägermeister and Underberg appear similar in taste and appearance, but fall under their own classification. On bar shelves, amari often sit alongside Italian aperitivo spirits—Aperol, Campari and such— but Italian traditions do distinguish the two.

There’s no strict rule, but aperitivi tilt toward tart citrus to awaken the palate before a meal while amari slant sweeter as the meal’s final flourish. However, many aperitivi share the same bitter ingredients as amari and many low-alcohol amari are increasingly popular in pre-dinner spritz cocktails. A more reliable distinction? Aperitivo spirits are usually lighter in both color and alcohol content and they’re usually served mixed (not neat).

NEW WORLD AMARO

Unlike Champagne or Prosecco, amaro production doesn’t enjoy protected status. The growing popularity of amari has inspired many domestic interpretations from distilleries across the U.S. Verrall notes many new and inventive options from distilleries coast to coast. “Italian amaro? Those guys have been making amaro for hundreds of years from an old family recipe. American amari are still so young and people are trying different stuff.”

Pineapple Amaro from Minnesota’s Heirloom Liqueurs spins a tropical twist with sweet pineapple that softens the bitter blow. Falcon Spirits’ Fernet Francisco is a homegrown take on the city’s beloved Fernet-Branca—the other San Francisco treat. Amaro Angeleno from Ventura Spirits in southern California celebrates citrus in a spirit it cheekily calls a “Caliamaro.” Don Ciccio & Figli of Washington, D.C. transports family liqueur traditions from the Amalfi Coast to America with its C3 Carciofo that riffs on the classic Cynar.

When choosing selections for Mezzaluna, Verrall prioritizes quality over quantity. He’s careful to sample and scrutinize each prospective addition. He has curated the list purposefully to assemble a diverse assortment. “I’ve got a selection of fernet styles, more Alpine styles, lighter and medium-bodied amari, more citrus-driven amari—I have something for everybody.”

Asked to select an amaro for a diner, Verrall is methodical, much like a sommelier recommending a bottle of wine. He asks questions to gauge a diner’s palate before offering a suggestion.

For novices, Verrall recommends Meletti, which is Mezzaluna’s top-selling amaro. “It’s really approachable, a lighter style amaro,” he explains. Notes of violet, saffron and caramel balance its gentle bitterness.

Amaro enthusiasts will recognize many of the storied brands from Italy at Mezzaluna. “When I started out, I had the ones that I knew that many people were familiar with. As time has gone on, I’m trying to find more small-distribution amari you can’t necessarily find in your local liquor store.”

What’s his personal pick? “I like something that’s balanced. I tend to go for more Alpine amari.” Bràulio—made with 13 fresh herbs including gentian, juniper, peppermint, star anise, wormwood and yarrow—is his favorite. But Verrall emphasizes there’s room for all amari, of course. “That’s what I like personally, but I appreciate all amaro flavors, really.”


WHERE TO BUY AMARO

Want to try a taste of amaro? These local restaurants and bars have standout selections to enjoy neat or served in cocktails.

515 Kitchen & Cocktails
515 Cedar St., Santa Cruz
831-425-5051
515santacruz.com

Mentone
174 Aptos Village Way, Aptos
831-708-4040
mentonerestaurant.com
(Full bottles also available for retail purchase)

Mezzaluna Pasteria & Mozzarella Bar
1188 Forest Ave., Paci c Grove
831-372-5325
mezzalunapasteria.com

Pearl Hour
214 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey
831-657-9447
pearlhour.com
(Full bottles also available for retail purchase and delivery)

Looking to stock some amaro for your home bar? Try one of these local liquor stores.

Deer Park Wine & Spirits
783 Rio Del Mar Blvd., Ste. 27, Aptos
831-688-1228
deerparkwines.com

41st Avenue Liquor
2155 41st Ave., Capitola
831-475-5117

Pacific Grove Bottle Shop
1112 Forest Ave., Ste. 5105, Pacific Grove
831-372-6091

Shopper’s Corner
622 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz
831-423-1398
shopperscorner.com

Bitters & Bottles in South San Francisco also offers a diverse selection of amari for shipping within California. Order online at bittersandbottles.com.


RECIPES

Cocktails With Amaro

Courtesy Francis Verrall, head bartender, Mezzaluna Pasteria & Mozzarella Bar in Pacific Grove

Amaro is so bitter that it wasn’t often used in classic cocktails. Some—like the Hanky Panky and Toronto—do include petite portions of Fernet-Branca. But these days, bartenders increasingly incorporate amari into socalled new classics, often substituting amaro for sweet vermouth with alluring results. Try your hand at these favorite cocktails from Mezzaluna’s head bartender Francis Verrall.

Black Manhattan

Courtesy Francis Verrall, head bartender, Mezzaluna Pasteria & Mozzarella Bar in Pacific Grove

The best-selling amaro cocktail at Mezzaluna, it originated at Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco and uses Averna instead of sweet vermouth—a groundbreaking move when it was created in 2005.

Back to Black

Courtesy Francis Verrall, head bartender, Mezzaluna Pasteria & Mozzarella Bar in Pacific Grove

This Negroni riff is a marriage of some of Verrall’s favorite flavors—smoke, bitterness, peppermint and coffee. It makes a perfect after-dinner tipple.

Coast of Gold

Courtesy Francis Verrall, head bartender, Mezzaluna Pasteria & Mozzarella Bar in Pacific Grove

Inspired by the modern classic cocktail, the Gold Rush, this is a tribute to the Gold Coast of California, where this amaro is made.

THE BARTENDER’S HANDSHAKE

The amaro Fernet-Branca enjoys cult status among bartenders. “It’s like a brotherhood,” says Manny Hernández, bar manager at Barceloneta. “It’s a secret code.” Ordering a shot of Branca at the bar—nicknamed the “bartender’s handshake”—signals that you know life is bitter and better for it.

For Cameron Delgado and Georgette Flores, managers at 515 Kitchen & Cocktails, a Fernet shot symbolizes solidarity. “There’s ritual and camaraderie to a shot amongst friends,” explains Delgado, while Flores emphasizes Fernet-Branca’s unspoken bond between bartenders. “You can’t help but feel like those who request a round of Fernet know.”

The exact recipe for the potent potion remains a trade secret of 27 herbs and aromatics, but is said to likely contain aloe ferox, chamomile, gentian, myrrh, peppermint and saffron. (The distillery also makes a mintier and sweeter sister, Branca Menta.) Fernet-Branca has high alcohol, low sugar and, unlike most other amari, is aged in the barrel for a year. “I think it’s tasty, but it’s definitely not everyone’s preference,” says Jason Strich, bar director at Mentone.

So what’s the appeal of the bitingly bitter herbal liqueur? “We taste so many things throughout the night, making sure every cocktail is tasting right. We want to get hit in the face with flavor and bitterness,” muses Katie Blandin, owner of Pearl Hour. “And a lot of the herbs in amaro are stimulating.” Verrall agrees that a shot of Fernet-Branca energizes and rejuvenates. “It gives you a little oomph, a little boost, for sure.”

Shooting Fernet-Branca does upend tradition, which dictates amaro be slowly savored at the end of the evening. “Our Italian brethren think us Americans foolish to be slamming Fernet-Branca—though I have been known to indulge in this ritual on occasion,” says Anthony Vitacca, spiritsmith at Montrio Bistro.

But Fernet-Branca isn’t the only bitter beverage enjoyed behind the bar. Local bartenders reveal their favorite amari for sipping after their shifts.

Katie Blandin, Pearl Hour Liquore Delle Sirene Canto Amaro is my current favorite. It’s light and golden with Christmas spices like cinnamon and ginger. I really like it because it’s made by a woman. And it’s a beautiful amaro that caught my palate.

Jevana Bouquin Cynar 70 for 50/50 sipping preparations. I like mine with a sweet-leaning, cocktail-appropriate mezcal like Banhez Ensemble or Del Maguey VIDA.

Georgette Flores, 515 Kitchen & Cocktails When I first tried Amaro Montenegro, all the stars aligned for me. The velvety vanilla notes hit first, rolling out the red carpet for a whimsical transition into some beautiful citrus. It was a wonderful experience that I still haven’t forgotten.

Manny Hernández, Barceloneta I really love Fernet-Branca. It means friendship, like part of a celebration after a long shift. Kelly Kuhn I really like Lucano.

Josh Perry, Carmel Valley Ranch I’d have to go with Amaro Montenegro. Alice South, Hula’s Island Grill Amaro CioCiaro. It’s a great mild bitter amaro that’s great neat, and makes a killer Black Manhattan.

Jason Strich, Mentone My go-to amaro for sipping is Bràulio, sipped neat or with a little bit of mezcal in there as well.

Brandon Torres, Soif Restaurant + Wine Bar I would definitely go with Amaro Montenegro for my favorite. Italian-style amari are always more profound with flavor, and have higher notes of citrus and light elements that come together in cocktails.

Anthony Vitacca, Montrio Bistro My favorite amaro at the moment is Lo-Fi Gentian Amaro. It’s a lighter style amaro with cinchona bark, hibiscus, ginger, grapefruit, rosewood and orange peel.

James Wall, Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill One of my absolute favorites is Foro. I also like using Cardamaro and Cynar in cocktails.

Daniel Watson, Cantinetta Luca To drink straight, Meletti in a chilled whisky glass, twist of lemon and discard so you’re left with a lovely lemon aroma that doesn’t interfere with the amaro too much.

About the author

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Raúl Nava (he/him/él) is a freelance writer covering dining and restaurants across the Central Coast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @offthemenu831.