I always wonder how Italians can eat very large twelve course meals and still manage to return to work the next day, or even, in many cases, an hour later. The answer, I found, lies in one potent pleasure: the digestivo. Italians certainly enjoy the ever-famous aperitivi before dinner. Campari, the bittersweet red beverage, goes well with soda. Prosecco (an Italian dry sparkling wine) also can begin a meal. But less recognized are the array of digestivi, which are enjoyed at the end of a meal.
Grappa is the most renown. Distilled from the skins, pulp, and seeds of grapes, originally winemakers created grappa as a way to prevent waste by using their leftovers. Nowadays the beverage is protected by the European Union, so grappa must be produced in either Italy, the Italian part of Switzerland, or in San Marino in order to carry the name. Hundreds of different grappas saturate the Italian market and distillers constantly create new flavors.
Aside from grappa, many other digestivi abound. In the south, Limoncello is an absolute must after almost any good meal. Sorrento along the Amalfi Coast boasts having the tastiest recipes, but it’s easy to make at home using lemon rinds and grain alcohol. For those who don’t like the sour taste of lemons, Liquore di Fragole replaces limoncello as a sweeter alternative. Made with tiny strawberry bits, the liqueur is viscous and sweet, but with a bite.
Sambuca, a sweet licorice tasting liqueur, is probably the third most popular digestivo. It’s not usually drunk straight, but rather splashed into espresso. Called ‘caffé corretto’ or ‘corrected espresso,’ the beverage provides a light lift after a meal. You’ll also see men at the café-bars drinking caffé corretto right before they head off to work in the morning.
Maraschino, a sweet cherry flavor liqueur, is most often used for baking cakes. The stronger digestivi, such as Anice (a stronger version of Sambuca) and Il Finocchietto (a fennel based alcohol) are also best used for baking and cooking. While Le Noci (a walnut alcohol) and Le Dodici Erbe (a twelve-herb grain alcohol) can be used for cooking, people prefer to drink these as elixirs for all sorts of ailments from coughs to heart disease.
Three digestivi are additionally thought to have healthful properties. Dark in color, their taste is bitter and they boast having anywhere from fifteen to forty different herbs, including fennel, mint, thyme, cardamom, and wormwood. The labels include: Averno, Ramazzotti, and Amaro Montenegro. But Italian digestivi have endless variations. Alcoholic beverages in Italy are even made from artichokes and truffles.
Certainly, the most important cure that any digestivo provides is for the traditional pleasure of Sunday overeating. And if there’s an immediate cure for overeating, then I say, Buon Appetito!