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I had just sat down at a restaurant named Caval d'Brons, set above Turin's Piazza San Carlo, and ordered Piedmontese specialties like tiny meat-stuffed ravioli called plin, with a butter and sage sauce, and vitello tonnato, made with slices of veal in a creamy tuna sauce.
But first I was presented with a little appetite starter — a rosy slice of culatello ham, a taste of Castelmagno cheese drizzled with balsamic vinegar, and a small glass of the Italian cordial called amaro.
It was no more than a sip or two, syrupy, herbaceous and bittersweet, a perfect spur to the palate. Now, since arriving home from Italy, I've been serving it before dinner to friends.
Italy produces scores of amaros, whose name means bitter but whose sweet flavors are a complexity of herbs, spices and citrus rinds, including gentian, angelica, lemon verbena, ginger, mint, thyme, licorice, cinnamon and menthol.
Made between 16 to 35 percent alcohol, amaros are drunk either as an aperitif on the rocks or in cocktails. More commonly in Italy, amaros are taken as a digestive after a meal.
In fact, their origins lie in the medicine cabinets of medieval monasteries, concocted by monks as aids to digestion and good health.
If you want to know what those early medicines tasted like, buy a bottle of Fernet Branca, a commercial Milan-based brand of amaro. It is a dark and potent brew — with up to 45 percent alcohol. Made from 27 herbs and spices, including Iranian saffron, South African aloe and French gentian, then aged for a year, Fernet Branca's ad motto is "It is worth the bitterness."
It is indeed very acrid, so some use it as cocktail bitters. Still, even many of its advocates grimace upon knocking it back after a huge meal to settle a queasy stomach. I am one of those reluctant advocates, so that is the price I pay for being raised a Catholic taught to believe the sin of gluttony must be punished with bitterness.
The best known, sweeter, amaro is Campari, the garnet red spirit usually drunk on the rocks with a twist of lemon or as a component in the classic Italian cocktails, the americano and negroni.
Vermouth too is an amaro (the word comes from the German wermut for wormwood), first produced by Turin-based Antonio Benedetto Carpano in 1786. In fact, the amaro I was served at Caval d'Brons was Carpano's "Antica Formula," which can be found in the U.S. for about $25-$35.
The Carpano firm (now owned by Fratelli Branca) also makes the popular Punt e Mes, which means, in Piedmontese dialect, "point and a half," said to refer to a point-and-a-half rise in the stock market that once greatly benefited the company.
Other fairly well known amaro brands available in Europe, South America, and the U.S. include Averna, Ramazzotti, and Cynar, all at least as sweet as they are bitter.
I set out to find some more unusual amaros in the market, heading to Mt. Carmel Wine & Spirits on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, a superb repository of Italian wine and spirits. Here are some amaros I particularly liked.
Amaro Lucano ($24.99)
This minty, liqueur-like amaro has been made in the province of Madera in Basilicata since 1894. Roasted hazelnuts, orange notes and a lingering bittersweetness make for a delicious way to begin or end an evening.
S. Maria al Monte Amaro Naturale ($26.99)
Hefty, at 40 percent alcohol, this Ligurian amaro has a deep mahogany color, is of medium body and is quite bitter, with an aroma that is instantly evocative of incense used at Sunday mass. A good Catholic could sniff it and fall to his knees. Best after dinner.
Ditta Bortolo Nardini ($44.99)
Claiming to be Italy's oldest distillery (1779), Nardini, in the Veneto, is best known for its grappas. Its premium-priced amaro pours like maple syrup into the glass and delivers a beautifully nuanced bouquet and what tastes like scores of carefully blended herbs and spices. You could have this on pancakes.
Nonino Amaro ($36.99)
This Friulian distillery almost singlehandedly changed grappa's image from moonshine to connoisseur's brandy twenty years ago. There's no mistaking the refined hand of the family in this exquisitely crafted amaro, with an impeccable balance of bitterness, sweetness, fruit, and spice that would be every bit as welcome after dinner as a vintage Port.