I remember my first encounter with amaro, the Italian bitter liqueur. It was the first time I went to Italy, and I had overindulged the night before. “Drink it. You’ll feel better,” my Italian friends urged, handing me a glass of Fernet Branca for its supposed digestive properties. The thick, viscous and extremely bitter liqueur could be enough to put you off the stuff forever. “It’s like swallowing a spoonful of vapor rub,” Mozza general manager David Rosoff describes it, laughing. I can’t disagree.
Unlikely as it seems, though, amaro has become a cult item with the mix-master set. Two Italian restaurants in Los Angeles, Osteria Mozza and Sotto, specialize in collecting some of the harder-to-find examples from all over Italy. It turns out there’s a whole wonderful other world of amari out there — lighter, more subtle examples; mezzo, or medium-bodied; alpine-style with more botanicals; others based on artichokes or rhubarb; as well as Fernet-style amari with a potent dose of the typical bitterness from quinine or cinchona bark from Peru.
Many were developed in monasteries and prized for their medicinal qualities. They can vary from light amber, sweet and aromatic with only a trace of bitterness to inky dark and almost syrupy with a potent kick of bitterness. Most are made from secret recipes handed down for generations and include dozens if not hundreds of botanicals and spices collected from all over the world.
At a wine shop, bottles run from $16 or $17 up to $60 or so, but most are in the $20 to $30 range. By the glass, in restaurants, an amaro might set you back $10 to $12. Or a restaurateur might offer a complimentary glass of those that are not yet imported into this country.
The ubiquitous Fernet Branca, it turns out, is just one of literally hundreds of amari made in Italy. Every town up and down the peninsula has its own or a favorite producer. Big cities may have several.
Mario Batali picked up the habit in Italy and favors Averna. And his Mozza partner Joe Bastianich is crazy enough about the stuff that he hired a guy who works at his Friuli winery to drive around and pick up interesting bottles wherever he finds them. “Joe’s collection” consists of bottles that are not imported into this country and are offered as a complimentary taste to interested diners.