America Embraces Bittersweet Italian Sodas - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

America Embraces Bittersweet Italian Sodas

If you live in a city like Providence or Philly or Brooklyn, where Italian mom-and-pop shops are still hanging on, where “pork store” remains in the lexicon and Sundays are meant for meatballs and gravy, perhaps you’ve seen one of these charming little drinks in the wild. The label might read Sanbitter or Biz, Crodino or Chinotto. Petite and psychedelic-hued, like an import from Wonderland that ought to be tagged “Drink Me,” the tiny bottles look nothing like their American counterparts—and when you pop one open and take a slug, you’ll find they don’t taste like them, either. Like Campari without the kick or Averna minus the booze, these are Italy’s fizzy aperitivi analcolici: delightfully bitter herbal sodas.

Ten years ago, such sips would have been a tough sell here. Americans are notorious for our sweet tooth—our per capita sugar consumption leads the world, clocking in at an average of more than 100 grams a day—and unlike Italians, bitter has never been a bedrock flavor in our foodways. But, incrementally, that’s changing. Dark chocolate, kale, espresso and IPAs—all fashionable tastes of the past decade—have begun rewiring our palates, ratcheting up our tolerance for bitter flavors. Nowadays Italian aperitivi and amari—like Campari, Aperol and Fernet-Branca—are de rigueur on cocktail menus, and thanks to the increased demand, an ever-more-diverse selection of international bitters grace liquor store shelves from Sarasota to Seattle.

Couple those trends with the growing clamor for alcohol-free mixed drinks that are as grown-up (sorry, Shirley Temple), complex and well-crafted as their high-proof counterparts, and it’s clear that these under-the-radar imports are ripe for a renaissance. No longer punch lines or afterthoughts, low- and zero-ABV drinks are commanding prime real estate on menus—and bartenders are excitedly trawling the market for tools to add to their arsenal.

Of course, earthy, botanical soft drinks are hardly a novel concept: “Medicinal” sodas like sarsaparilla and birch beer, concocted from blends of roots and barks and meant to aid digestion and all manner of other ills, were the toast of early American soda fountains before being overtaken by the saccharine delights of midcentury soda jerks. Even today, quinine-infused tonic water remains a staple of backbars in even the deepest backwaters.

But look closely at the shelves of gourmet markets and between the lines of creative cocktail menus and you’ll notice new energy afoot. Inspired by the example of Italy and the Old World, and invigorated by more adventurous consumer attitudes, American bartenders and beverage entrepreneurs are giving bitter sodas a reappraisal. And rather than gathering dust in neighborhood salumerias, Italy’s bitter soft drinks are having a spin in the spotlight.

italian soda
Photo by Eric Medsker.

The Old World…

First, some history. To understand how these offbeat little sodas became a part of Italy’s drinking culture, it helps to rewind. There’s no debate that Italy is the godfather of the bitter tipple: The Romans and Greeks began blending aromatic botanical elixirs millennia ago, and by medieval times, monks and friars in the region’s monasteries had refined the practice to an art form. The results were the original amari and aperitivi: medicinal tonics, preserved in a spirit base, fashioned from closely guarded recipes of local natural resources—which, generally speaking, meant herbal alpine plants and botanicals in the north, and bitter citrus and roots farther south. Indeed, like so many of Italy’s food-and-drink traditions, bitter spirits have always tended to be intensely place-based affairs. Take, for instance, Amaro Sibilla, a gently herbal amaro hailing from the Marche near the eastern slopes of the Apennines, which since 1868 has been sweetened with local mountain honey. Or Sicily’s Amaro dell’Etna, which is purported to contain nearly two dozen botanicals, many of which, like blood orange, thrive in the terroir of its namesake volcano.

Though the first commercial alcohol-free aperitivi did not appear until much later—most came to market in the interwar years or just after WWII—their creators were driven by a similar approach. “A lot of the aperitivi sodas you find in Italy began as really small, regional drinks that were only developed into soda brands around midcentury,” explains American ex-pat and Roman food-and-drink specialist Katie Parla. “But in the last few decades, because of a growing interest in historic Italian recipes, they’ve been seeing a little renaissance.”

Indeed, from the start, many of the biggest names in the category were designed to celebrate regional Italian traditions and play to local pride. Crodino, a pale amber aperitif soda, got its start in 1964 in the northern Italian town of Crodo, near the Swiss border, using mineral waters from the nearby Liesel spring. Like most all amari and aperitivi, alcoholic or not, Crodino’s exact recipe is shrouded in secrecy, but its taste—a rush of vanilla followed by a dry, tongue-puckering herbaceous pop—suggests bitter orange, warm spices like cardamom and clove, as well as quinine. (Think: cream soda with an edge.) It’s hardly a health drink: Despite its bitter finish, Crodino—like almost all Italian bitter sodas—still contains a serious amount of sugar. But packaged in an odd, bottom-heavy bottle like a little bowling pin that holds just over 3 ounces of soda, the drink possessed an air of the old fashioned and homegrown about it, even when it was brand new. Even now, though the small company was purchased by Gruppo Campari in 1995, most Italians seem to regard it with an affectionate nostalgia.

“Italy still has a soft spot for smaller national brands,” says Emma Bentley, a wine writer based in the Vicenza area. “And there’s this long-standing belief, however misguided, that these sorts of soft drinks are healthier than their sweet counterparts because bitter things aid your digestion.” The drinks’ diminutive size is also a plus. “If you think about it, it’s like the opposite of a supersized American drink,” says Bentley. “If you want a little something fizzy to keep your kids happy at the neighborhood bar, this is the perfect mini pour. And if you’re drinking it yourself, it’s a neat single serving—just one portion you don’t even have to mix.”

Alan Lam, beverage director at Eataly Flatiron in New York City, agrees. “For me, the appeal of these drinks is as an alternative to overly sugary sodas that make you feel sluggish throughout the day.”

If Crodino is Italy’s zero-alcohol doppelganger for blond aperitivi, spicy rosso bitters—like Sanbitter, Stappj and Biz—are the most popular stand-ins for Campari. With bold flavors of citrus, rhubarb, florals and herbs, and—like Crodini—packaged in adorably petite glass bottles, they’re an excellent pick-me-up on a sweltering summer day. (And also, speaking from personal experience: a much-needed consolation prize for Negroni-starved pregnant ladies.)

Photo by Michael Persico.

Chinotto, a fizzy, caramel-colored confection with an herb-and-citrus edge that’s sometimes likened to a bitter cola, gets its pronounced bite from the extract of a myrtle-leaved orange tree that was native to China before being introduced to the French Riviera in the 16th century. Carried by sailors, the plant made its way down the coast to Liguria soon after, where it was crossed with the Seville orange to create the Citrus aurantium—a sturdy, shrubby evergreen hybrid that bears a profusion of green, ping-pong-sized, seedless citrus with a puckeringly bitter bite. In Italy, eventually the plant, its fruit, and the drink it spawned began to be called by the common name chinotto—a derivative of the word cinese, which translates literally as ‘Chinese.’

In The Land Where Lemons Grow, a fascinating cultural history of Italy and its citrus industry, author Helena Attlee describes how what began as a cottage citrus industry in the Ligurian province of Savona grew into a “cult beverage” operation following the San Pellegrino company’s large-scale production of a bottled chinotto soda in the 1950s. The company saw in the soda the potential for a homegrown answer to American imports like Coca-Cola, which had begun making aggressive inroads into the Italian market. (Never ones for subtlety, San Pellegrino didn’t pull any punches with its first chinotto slogan: L’altro modo di bere scuro, or “the other way to drink dark.”)

Around the same time, a handful of other competitors joined San Pellegrino in the chinotto market, notably Recoaro, from the Veneto, and Chinotto Neri, from Viterbo, which made a marketing splash by adorning a fleet of hulking Chevys and Cadillacs with its curlicue logo—and some larger-than-life chinotto bottles—and parading them throughout Italy’s cities.

Ironically, even Coca-Cola eventually tried to get some skin in the game: Beverly, the beverage giant’s take on a chinotto-style nonalcoholic aperitif, was introduced to the Italian market in 1969 and enjoyed brisk sales until being discontinued in 2009.

More recently, following the 2004 appointment of Savona’s chinotto to the Slow Food Presidium, which recognizes the fruit as a protected local product, new artisanal versions—like Chinotto Lurisia, and Spuma Nera, made by Italian brewer Baladin—have found a fresh audience.

Still, the most common way Italians serve chinotto or Crodino is gloriously simple: ice cold and decanted into a little glass, garnished with an orange twist, and accompanied by a modest bowl of potato chips or a few fat green olives. And ultimately, in the spirit of aperitivi, these drinks are meant to be a relaxing pause in the day, not a doctrinaire affair. So you prefer your Sanbitter topped off with lemonade? Lovely. Or perhaps, like Bentley’s neighbors in the Piedmonte, you take your Crodino bolstered by a generous pour of prosecco, à la an even milder Aperol spritz? Have it your way. According to Parla, because drinks like Crodino, Sanbitter, chinotto, and their brethren have remained primarily the province of youngsters, sociable teetotalers and the elderly set, their natural habitat will always be the casual bar del quartiere—not the hipster drinking den.

Photo by Michael Persico.

… And the New

Four thousand miles across the Atlantic, it’s a different story.

Call it a perfect storm: For years, bitter Italian spirts have been gaining traction with American drinkers—and some, like Campari, have blossomed into bonafide crazes. (I’m looking at you, #negroniweek.) At the same time, low- and zero-alcohol cocktails have moved from the margins of cocktail culture into the mainstream, and show no signs of retreat. Bartenders and food professionals scanning for the next big thing don’t have to be geniuses to notice that at the nexus of both of these trends are chinotto, Crodino, Sanbitter and the rest of Italy’s aperitivi analcolici. Maybe they stumble across the little bottles at a local specialty market. Or happen to try one during a romantic Roman getaway. But the response is usually the same: Here’s a cool new plaything.

“On a hot day, I love a Sanbitter on ice with a little slice of orange,” says Jeff Michaud, the James Beard Award–winning chef and co-owner of Osteria in Philadelphia. “And I’ve always been crazy about chinotto—the bitter molasses flavor reminds me of Moxie, which I drank a lot as a kid in New Hampshire.”

After his New England youth, Michaud spent his formative years training in Italy, an experience that left him with deep appreciation for the essential role that bitter flavors play in the Italian kitchen and bar, whether the vehicle is a chicory salad or a fizzy soda. “We’ve served everything from an affogato made with chinotto soda and chinotto gelato to ribs glazed with a chinotto reduction,” he says. “It’s sort of like an Italian twist on American root beer pork.”

Indeed, chalk it up to their riotous colors or their exuberant bubbles, but Italian bitter sodas seem to bring out barkeeps’ playful side. At Plenty, Philadelphia’s ambitious chain of daytime cafés, highlights of owner Anthony Mascieri’s menu have included the Alive & Kickin’—a twist on cold brew that’s been fortified with chinotto syrup and a shot of Averna—as well as a boozy ice-cream float comprised of chinotto soda, milk chocolate gelato and Cappelletti amaro. At Eataly Flatiron, bartenders sometimes serve a version of a Moscow Mule using whiskey, ginger purée, ginger-honey syrup and lemon juice, topped off with Lurisia Chinotto. “It’s refreshing, light, and has just the right amount of bitterness,” Eataly’s Lam explains.

It was an intuition about the creative potential inherent in these bitter sodas that first piqued the attention of Julia Momose, an award-winning Chicago-based bartender. In addition to building studiously crafted conventional cocktails during her stints behind the bar at GreenRiver and Oriole, Momose made a name for herself as a pioneer in the field of what she calls “spirit-frees.” Now helming her own omakase-style bar—Kumiko, opening later this summer—she says that aperitivi sodas have become an ever-present part of her tool kit. “The people I meet who want a spirit-free drink want an adult, elegant experience, not a Shirley Temple, or to just settle for iced tea,” Momose says. “But for bartenders, the challenge of creating a sophisticated zero-proof drink is always about equilibrium. Cocktails usually contain spirit, bitter, sugar and water—so if you take spirit out of the equation, how do you maintain balance?”

Photo by Eric Medsker.

That, she explains, is where Italian sodas come in. “I use them all the time in both spirit-free and high-proof cocktails,” she says. “Sanbitter red has this complex, warm citrus bite, and even the color is just intoxicating. Making alcohol-free Negronis is always tricky because it’s such an elemental drink, but Sanbitter helps create a sensory experience that really gets close.” As for her chinotto of choice? Lurisia—because the tight little Champagne-style bubbles are great for highballs. When approaching drinks with a more floral edge, Momose says Sanbitter Dry, while harder to find, can be another game changer. “It has a distinct gentian bitterness that’s closer to Suze than Campari,” she explains. Some of her favorite uses for it are also the simplest: paired with tonic as a simple pressé, or blended with chilled sencha green tea for earthiness.

Curiously, though, Momose says that these days some of her favorite bitter sodas aren’t Italian at all: They’re the creations of Mary Pellettieri, the entrepreneur behind the upstart Wisconsin-based mixer company Top Note Tonics. After working as a brewer for 20 years, Pellettieri only started thinking about making a craft version of an Italian bitter soda when she was faced with a practical problem: She was pregnant. “I’d always gravitated to the herbal flavors of vermouth and amaro—those were my drinks. So, when I was pregnant I went out and ordered tonic water or bitter sodas,” she says, noting that she was often disappointed with what she found. “That made me realize that, in America at least, no one had innovated in that space in at least 50 years.”

Energized by the challenge, Pellettieri began playing around in her kitchen. Eventually those labors yielded a line of sodas and syrups that has grown to include a bitter lemon soda with top notes of wintergreen and lemongrass; an intense ginger beer sweetened with date sugar; a gentian lime tonic syrup; and a dark bitter orange syrup with a flavor profile inspired by nonalcoholic aperitivi like Crodino and chinotto. The company’s commitment to tradition and attention to quality ingredients has clearly paid off: In 2017, barely three years after launching, Pellettieri and her partner were honored with a Specialty Food Association best new product award for their Indian Tonic Water.

What’s next? Pellettieri hopes that, like the Old World aperitivi that inspired her journey, Top Note’s bitter sodas continue to grow and provide a delicious moment of pause in people’s lives, regardless of their age or tolerance for the hard stuff. “Most soft drink companies are so fixated on engineering their products to the exact ‘bliss point’ of sweetness that it means everything they produce has a single, sugary note,” she says. “But we’ve always been more interested in the middle—that place where you can have balance and bliss.”

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