You might have experienced a cheese cart or a chocolate cart, but what about a tableside basket of after-dinner bitter liqueurs? At Maialino in the Gramercy Park Hotel in NYC, bar manager Erik Lombardo recently introduced amari service, including a 16-bottle list and a few digestif bottles offered tableside for post-dinner sipping. The list, which includes a few familiar bottles (such as the delicious Nonino and Montenegro, Cynar and Zucca) but also some you might not have tried (such as Amaro Braulio and Lucano) rewards adventurousness, and sampling flights are available along with individual glasses. We asked Lombardo a bit about the program and his picks for amari novices, plus the weirdest bottles and his personal favorites.
You recently introduced an extensive list of amari at Maialino. What prompted the addition?
We wanted to encourage our guests and staff to learn more about the drink and what makes it so unique. The idea of having something that is specifically intended to aid digestion and to drink after a meal. Also, it's hard to get more authentically Italian than amaro. The best part is that the variety in amari mirrors the myriad of regional differences all over Italy. Amaro from Lombardia is pensive with focused blasts of mint, entirely reflective of its alpine origins. Amaro from the Marche regions is heady with floral and citrus notes, it's not hard to imagine obnoxiously fit and tan Italians sipping it while the Adriatic sea crashes dramatically in the background. Tasting amari is like taking a sensory tour of Italy.
How did you get interested in amari?
Like many people do, as a dare. My first introduction to amaro was Fernet Branca, which is a bit being introduced to someone who punches you in the face with a boxing glove full of menthol, myrrh and eucalyptus. To the uninitiated it can be like having a prankster tell you to put a ton of wasabi on your first piece of sushi, it completely overrides everything happening around you. Fortunately for me, it has another similarity with wasabi: when the attack fades it leaves an almost endorphin-like feeling; it's not difficult to become hooked. From the gateway of Fernet I started trying others, actively seeking out places that had amari I'd never heard of. If I sit at a bar and they have an amaro I'm unfamiliar with, that's the one I'm ordering.
Which amaro would you say is the best for beginners?
I would say Meletti or Averna are good for beginners. They're softer than some of the big dogs, both of them have a good amount of sweetness to balance out the bitterness. Their also relatively low in alcohol, so you can try them in different formats. Amari change drastically when they are enjoyed in different ways. I prefer many kinds sipped neat, but I also enjoy some, like both of the ones I mentioned, topped up with club soda and finished with a twist of lemon. Completely different drink, the effervescence and citrus oil makes them incredibly refreshing.
Which is the most bitter bottle you're serving? What about the most unusual? The most rare?
Sibilla is easily the most bitter we have, the finish can drag out for minutes. Most unusual may go the fernets, not many people are used to drinking the alcoholic equivalent of Vap-O-Rub, although trust me, it works! The most rare currently is the Braulio which we had a small part helping get shipped to the country—shout out to our Wine Director Liz Nicholson for getting that ball in motion! Until recently only one pallet had been shipped to the country and we had a good chunk of that. We were certainly one of the first restaurants in NYC to feature it.
What do you look for when you're selecting new bottles to include?
Some amari fly under the radar. I like complex and nuanced flavors that develop slowly and help tell you a story. It's one thing for me to say that Cio Ciaro has root beer, smoke, and orange notes and quite another thing to tell you it tastes like someone was burning oranges in a campfire then decided they wanted to eat them so they put it out with sarsaparilla. We have everything from light and fun to dark and brooding, low-test to boozy. The idea is to have something for everyone. If you have someone scared of bitterness, you can suggest one that's sweeter; for someone who craves spice, there's one redolent of baking spices.
Do you have a personal favorite or two? Which bottles and why?
My relationship with amari is a quintessentially Italian romance. I fall in and out of love with all of them but I will never forget my first. Fernet for sure, and then maybe Braulio. The story of Fernet and Braulio is one of two twins separated at birth. One of them grew up on the mean streets of Lombardia and learned to speak with her fists. She's rough and tumble, she'll use and abuse you and you'll love every second of it. The other got adopted by a rich family and went to finishing school and learned to fence and speak Latin. She plays the cello and is incredibly well-read. Braulio is a polite introduction to the very same flavors Fernet has, but instead of having all four shout at you at the same time vying to be heard they parade one by one in front of you making gentle conversation. But ask me again tomorrow...