The Parlor's bar manager Michael Allmandinger sat down with us a few weeks ago, he did so with a list titled "Amaro 101: An Introduction to Italian Amari." It includes 18 bitter, Italian apertifs and digestifs.
But that's not all.
“Currently we have….” he trails off, twisting around in his seat to count the bottles of amaro overflowing the bar’s leftmost shelves “… about 35… maybe, 45 different bottles of amaro.”
And with so many on hand, The Parlor, for the first time ever, will be offering a dessert menu dedicated to amaro.
As integral to Italian culture as espresso, the dark, herbacious liqueurs are largely a mystery to American diners. Amari — that’s the plural form of amaro — is usually very dark in appearance. They tend to be intensely aromatic, often numbingly bitter, viscous and complex, and are enjoyed either slowly, as a sipping drink, or shot back like medicine. It's a little like how espresso is consumed. As is the case with espresso, variety is king. So is terroir.
The bitter, herbal drink is becoming popular at a time when American audiences are embracing bitter as a taste more than ever, both in combination with salty and sweet and in place of the two. While our palate only has one receptor for tasting sweetness in all of its forms, we have close to 25 receptors for bitter. So if you like coffee and dark chocolate or hoppy IPA-style beers, there's a good chance you'll like amaro.
In cocktail culture, amaro has always been hiding in plain sight. It's a crucial component in the craft cocktail movement’s most darling cocktail, the Negroni: One third gin, one third sweet vermouth, and one third Campari. Those three polarizing ingredients (Anthony Bourdain has been quoted as saying each component is awful and undrinkable on its own) do the dirty work of keeping one another in check. A good negroni is bitter, in essence, and not too sweet.
Allmandinger is more than happy to mess around with the amaro component in a Negroni; or an Aperol (a bright, orange amaro) spritz; or a black manhattan, which keeps the whiskey but opts for an amaro in place of sweet vermouth.
"Amari is a big category,” Allmandinger says. “Aperol is an amari. Campari, too, you know. Most bars are going to have them. But mostly, I think, they are getting used for cocktails.”
In other words, no one wants to drink Campari or Aperol neat — at least, not right now.
"We’re trying to bring the education of Amaro since we’re an Italian restaurant," Allmandinger says. "Our owner Aric [Mei] goes to Italy and always talks about these big expansive meals, and almost every time they’re finished with an amaro and an espresso.”
The Parlor's menu began with 18 featured amari listed by region and contains a good amount of literature for each selection — some interesting, some superfluous, some anecdotal. For the most part these descriptions are an educational tool for the Parlor's waitstaff; Allmandinger will be in the bar so he needs each server to know this bitter drink inside and out — that's the only way this will work, he says.
“We really want people to be able to taste the region,” Allmandinger says, adding that amari makers often use the local herbs around their region when building their often secret blends. "That’s one of the biggest things with amaro. You’ll have this base — like this artichoke base, this grape base they’re starting with, but then they’re usually adding these 30-some herbs and botanicals from wherever that region is. So when you taste through them and the guest can kind of see where or what which region they’re coming from, just like with wine, you get to taste the region.”
Amaro options will start from sweeter, more approachable choices like the Amaro Lazzaroni ("To me," Allmandinger says, "Lazzaroni is synonymous with cookies. My mom would pick up tins of the famous almond cookie when in New York."), with notes of creme brulee and chamomile, and Amer Gingembre, which has the lowest ABV out of the bunch at 18 percent. It also offers a huge hit of ginger.
Things get trickier with amari like the R. Jelinek Fernet, which in addition to mint tastes strongly of anise, a flavor mostly associated with licorice. And there are even more intimidating orders, such as the Liquore Strega. It has evergreen notes and a prominent minty flavor that, taking into account its 40 percent ABV, Allmandinger puts in the advanced category of amari drinking. It packs a punch.
He does play favorites; prizing the balance of both the Amaro CioCiaro and the Vechio Amaro Del Capo.
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"I can just taste a larger variety of the herbs," says Allmandinger. "To my palate, at least, they’re more complex."
In addition to the flavor experience, Allmandinger spouts the drink’s other advantages. "It’s low-octane, and it has some digestives in it to help break down the food."
Amari, Allmandinger tells us as if it weren't obvious, are among his favorite thing to drink.
“After work I sit down and sip on an amaro,” he says. "I'm all in."