Across the Table: In Italy, <i>amaro</i> is the bitter end

I remember my first encounter with amaro, the Italian bitter liqueur. It was the first time I went to Italy and 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 VapoRub," 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.

Altogether, Osteria Mozza's Amari Bar stocks 50 to 80 different types. Over at Sotto, bar director and amaro enthusiast Julian Cox has assembled a couple of dozen and is working on collecting a good many more.

In Italy, amari are most often drunk as a digestivo, or digestive, after a meal. Mozza wine director Taylor Parsons (no relation to Food Editor Russ Parsons) remembers when he was living in Lucca, Italy, lunch inevitably ended with coffee and an amaro, never dessert. 

No question, it's Italians and Italophiles who are most likely to order a glass after dinner at Osteria Mozza or Sotto. It's part of the culture of the table in Italy, and when they're dining at these two Italian restaurants, they want the full experience.

Now the cocktail crowd is driving the surge in interest as well. At first, there was a macho component. But now there's a cross-pollination as mixologists experiment with subbing amaro for Campari or sweet vermouth in cocktails. "An old-fashioned made with amaro is really fun," says Parsons. "You can make a million different Manhattans with the lighter styles substituted for sweet vermouth."

Cox, who put together the bar program at Sotto, is fascinated with amaro. At first encounter, though, as a young bartender in the making, it was hardly love at first taste. He eventually discovered the huge variety of flavors and styles.

After tasting a couple of dozen amari in a wide range of styles, I'm still no fan of Fernet Branca, but I can easily see how one amaro leads to another. And another.

irene.virbila@latimes.com