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Amaro and Aperitivo Bars

By Ronald Holden

Every block these days seems to have a craft cocktail emporium, and every restaurant worth its salt has a happy hour of discounted food and drink. The concept isn't new; it's an outgrowth of Italy's aperitivo culture: the civilized notion that urban dwellers need a period to transition between work-day tensions and dinnertime relaxation. It's part of daily life, a routine in towns big and small, but especially in Torino and Milano: you enter the premises (sometimes ornate, sometimes not), you might pay a cashier up front and take your receipt to the bar; you might just place your order with the counterman. A sweet vermouth, a Campari-Soda, an infused bitter like Averna or Salers or Fernet, your call. There might be a saucer of potato chips or a few pieces of salami, or even a buffet of appetizers. It's not dinner, that comes later. And you can always return to the Averna for your after-dinner digestivo. Or you can head to Bothell, where there's a restaurant actually named Amaro, same owner as IL Bistro in the Pike Place Market, which has a pretty good amaro list of its own.

Herb & Bitter's flight

One of the country's palaces of amaro is right here in Seattle. That would be Barnacle on Ballard Avenue, where amaro enthusiast David Little has assembled one of the country's deepest collections. If you've never been, go soon.

The front of the rehabbed Kolstrand building is home to Ethan Stowell's Staple & Fancy and his soon-to-become event space, Marine Hardware. The back is where the sophisticated action happens: Renee Erickson's Walrus & Carpenter and its offshoot, Barnacle, a delightful 12-seat cocktail counter, which houses Seattle's most ambitious collection of Italian bitters.

Collectively, amari are one of the world's great taste experiences, woven deeply into the fabric of Italian life, from big-city bars to rural caffès. Names like Fernet-Branca, favorite of off-duty barkeeps world-over; Campari, basis for the Negroni and the Campari-Soda; Averna, Zucca, Ramazzotti, Meletti, Braulio, Montenegro, Cappelletti, Amaro Nonino, Unico, the list goes on and on. Barnacle's back bar shelters well over 150 labels, and the newly-designed menu features over a dozen tasting flights, $15 for three one-ounce pours, from the simplest (Montenegro, Vecchio del Capo, Ciociaro) to the increasingly exotic (Santa Maria at Monte, Sibilia, Casoni Ciclista). For newcomers to this closely-guarded treasure chest, a shot of amaro might well taste like cough syrup. Pertussin, for example. And you wouldn't be too far off: for generations, pharmacists have been concocting elixirs from plants and herbs.

And there's food, too, at Barnacle. Sardines, olives, on-the-bone Spanish ham sliced by hand from a jamonero, a stainless steel stand like a medieval torture device that holds the leg in place. (You can buy one for your own family! It's under $600 at Costco, 15 lbs. of bone-in meat, the holder, and a carving knife.)

Barnacle's jamonero

Wait, Italian? Does Starbucks know about this amaro thing? You bet. Especially at the Princi shops in South Lake Union, at the Corporate Support Center in SoDo, and at the Roastery on Capitol Hill, they're into the whole aperitivo ritual. Rocco Princi, the superstar baker from Milano whose first American operation is right here, created a handful of signature aperitivi for Starbucks. I started out easy, with a rhubarb-based amaro called Zucco, then moved up. The Princi barista/bartender combined Campari, bourbon and sweet vermouth (so far, the ingredients of a perfectly respectable Boulevardier), added a touch of vanilla syrup, and poured it over freshly ground Starbucks Reserve coffee. Cold brew, right? Into a glass with a single ice cube and topped with a couple drops of lavender bitters.

Starbucks describes it thus: "Earth, oak, coffee, and cocktail come together through the exchange of techniques across the realms of bartender and barista. There is a delicious moment as the ruby red cocktail is poured over fragrant coffee grounds in a hypnotic circular motion. The coffee-kissed liquid trickled into a carafe and collects, excitement mounting, until it is poured over a sphere of ice, ready to be sipped and savored."

I can't recommend this highly enough. You don't taste the coffee, just its smokey, slightly bitter chocolate character. It's the creation of bartender Julia Momose, born in Japan, currently working in Chicago, recognized as one of America's top young mixologists, furiously talented.

Princi offers a couple of salumi options to accompany its cocktail hour concoctions, but if you're not sharing with a drinking buddy and the prospect of shelling out $22 for your very own plate of prosciutto seems daunting, you can shuffle over to the bakery counter and point to a slice of the Quattro Staggione pizza; a cheerful, white-capped commessa will heat it up and deliver it to you for $6.

More research. Artusi, on Capitol Hill, serves up an amaro called Lago Maggiore that starts out as a Nebbiolo-based, amarone-style wine and gets its kick from the herbs growing around northern Italy's Alpine lakes. At Intermezzo in Pioneer Square, I was pleased to find another rhubarb-based amaro, Sfumato Rabarbaro, and a $10 assortment of cold cuts and cheeses. And at Ristorante Picolinos in Sunset Hill, I enjoyed an amaro from California's St. George distillery called Bruto Americano; it made for a satisfying nightcap.

Onward. At Cicchetti on Eastlake, now in the capable hands of Christian Chandler after the death of founder Susan Kaufman, the amaro flight was a modest $14: Nardini's fruity amaro, Tagliatella; a bright Ebo Lebo from Ottoz; and another Sfumato Rabarbaro. Could have stayed here and tried another flight and added some nibbles (cicchetti literally means "bar snacks") but I was ready to wrap things up.

Cicchetti's flight

So up to Broadway for a final flight of amari, labeled Caveat Emptor ("Buyer Beware"), $20, at Herb & Bitter. This is the stuff of PhD orals: the toughest tasting exam you can imagine. Cloudy green Amaro Alta Verde (brim-full of Alpine herbs and a taste of absinthe); bright yellow Jeppson's Malört (the Swedish word for wormwood and long a staple of two-fisted Chicago taverns); and, finally, the black-as-night bitter, bitter end: Elisir Novasalus. Dark, woody, acrid. Can you imagine the smell of the mastic used to glue linoleum to the floor or the countertop? Moist tree sap (if you're in the habit of licking trees) would have at least some redeeming sweetness; Novasalus has none of that. They had to go to the Sicilian underbrush to find trees with sufficiently bitter sap, to which they then added flowers and herbs from Alpine meadows before marinating everything for six months in Marsala wine. It was only a one-ounce pour, but I was unable to finish it. Adding a splash of water was no help, an ice cube only made things worse, like a dirty bomb. Do you remember Black Jack chewing gum? That's black-licorice flavor. Hated it when I was a kid, just thinking about it makes me shudder.

Still, defeat was not an option, so I declared victory and called it a night. I walked a block south along Broadway and ducked into Boca, where I chased the wretched taste of the Novasalus with a long, cold draught of Fremont IPA. Neither the barkeep at Cicchetti nor at Herb & Bitter had bothered to ask if I wanted anything to eat, but the owner of Boca, Marco Casas-Breaux, brought me an order of Argentina's truck-stop mainstay, a boneless beef cutlet, breaded and deep-fried, topped with a pair of fried eggs. In genteel Viennese society this is known as a Schnitzel à la Holstein; in Berlin it's a Strammer Max. At Boca, it's called a Milanese, and it probably saved my life.

Photos courtesy of Ronald Holden


Ronald Holden's most recent book, FORKING SEATTLE , is now in its second edition.

January 2020


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