Closing Out the Meal: Italian Digestivi

We discussed in a recent post that in Italian culture, the meal is a well-rounded, flavorful and enjoyable community event. Food and drink constantly complement one another throughout the meal to create a more enhanced experience. Meals often begin with aperitivi, a type of pre-dinner cocktail that prepares the appetite for the (usually) multi-course meal. But after the meal, Italians also enjoy what’s called a digestivo. As you may gather just from the name, the digestivo purportedly aids in digestion as a bitter, alcoholic, post-meal drink.

The type of digestivo most common in Italy are called amari (plural for “amaro,” meaning “bitter”), a type of bitter, herbal Italian liqueur. They are made by infusing grapes with various types of natural herbs, spices, roots, bark, flowers and citrus peels. The mixture is soaked in alcohol, sugar syrup is added and then it’s aged for a period, sometimes for months, sometimes for years depending on the liqueur.

The taste is often described as medicinal, and for good reason. Amari have their roots in ancient Rome. It would be used as medicine and was said to treat various ailments including stomach aches. Eventually, Italians started sipping small amounts of amari after dinner to increase digestive efficiency and the tradition stuck. Hundreds of variations of amari exist today, but we wanted to touch on a few of the more popular ones.

Averna

This sweet liqueur comes from Sicily and is named after its original distributor, Salvatore Averna. The recipe was invented in the 1800s by Sicilian monks who thought the concoction had medicinal properties. In 1868 they gave the recipe to Averna, who started to produce it in his home and began distributing it.

Today it is made from citrus rinds, roots and herbs that are soaked in a base liquor and caramel is added afterward. Averna is thick, sweet and slightly bitter.

Montenegro

Originating in 1885, this particular amaro is made from 40 different herbs and flowers from around the world, the exact ingredients kept secret. Its taste is described as, “A wide range of bittersweet flavors including orange peel, coriander, and tea.” It is currently produced in Bologna, Italy.

Fernet-Branca

While this amaro boasts 27 roots, herbs and spices, the full recipe is kept secret. However, the known herbs are chamomile, cinnamon, china, galanga, iris, myrrh, rhubarb, linden flowers, saffron, zedoary, and aloe ferox. Invented in 1845, this sharp and bitter liqueur was originally used as medicine to treat stomach pain and flatulence. The first taste is described as overwhelmingly bitter, but slowly starts to turn sweet as you drink it — despite having less sugar content than most other amari. It’s most commonly found in cocktails: “Hanky Panky”, “Toronto” and “Fanciulli”.

Cynar

Cynar is made from 13 different plants, the main one being artichoke hearts. Interestingly, this is where it gets its name. The Latin term for artichoke is “cynara scolymus”. This unique drink is most prevalent in cocktails, especially in the German and Swiss regions, where it’s commonly mixed with orange juice. Because of its unique flavor profile, it is actually considered both an aperitivo and a digestivo. Its taste is described as bitter (of course), light and sweet with a strong herbal flavor.

There are many variations of liqueur and craft cocktail within the Italian culture that are meant to enhance your overall dining experience. If you have interest in partaking in authentic Italian cuisine, stop by or reserve a table.

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