Italian drinks, of many different types, play an important role in Italy. Everyone, worldwide, knows and loves Italian food. Afterall, who can resist a hot, crunchy crostini, a sinfully creamy plate of fettuccini alfredo-twirled, of course, not cut–or a generous slice of fresh-baked pizza? Not to mention the gelato! But what about the signature drinks of Italy? If you haven’t been there, you may be hard-pressed to come up with anything other than wine, but anyone who’s spent any amount of time on “the boot” knows that the Italians take their beverages as seriously as their entrees. (And their appetizers…and desserts….)
In Italy, dinner is a social event that can easily last several hours, and it’s customary to begin the festivities with an aperitif to stimulate the appetite. An aperitif may be a soft drink for the kids or the teetotalers in the crowd, but is most often wine, cocktails, or liqueurs. One of the most popular cocktails is the Bellini, a champagne-and-peach-puree concoction invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice. Its pinkish hue calls to mind the colors used in toga paintings by its namesake, 15-century Italian artist Giovanni Bellini.
Also popular is the highly alcoholic (25% or so) Campari, a dark red bitters commonly enjoyed with soda water, wine or in cocktails. Citrus lovers may want to try the famous Limoncello, made in Southern Italy. This sweet, pale yellow drink is made from the zest of the lemons rather than the juice, so it is fruity without being sour. While traditionally served as a digestif, it can also be enjoyed as an aperitif. Other flavored liqueurs include Frangolino (strawberry), Maraschino (cherry) and Nocino (nut).
Once dinner is served, the wine begins to pour-and wine is, of course, an Italian specialty. Perhaps the most famous Italian wine is Chianti. Initially, this Tuscan wine was made from white grapes, but over the centuries evolved into the dry red wine that’s sold today. It’s usually consumed with heavy pastas or red meat. For lighter dishes, such as fish or seafood, a dry white wine such as Pinot Grigio may be served. And of course, a sweet dessert wine such as Asti Spumante is always welcome with cake or biscotti!
Once the forks have been laid down, Italians like to indulge in a digestif, an after-dinner drink to aid digestion. Often, this once again takes the form of a liqueur, but those who don’t drink alcohol-and indeed, even those who do-will enjoy experiencing the Italian passion for coffee. Like Americans, many Italians drink several cups of coffee a day. Caffe is what we might refer to as espresso: an eye-openingly strong shot of coffee served in a very small cup. Caffe can be ordered Hag (decaffeinated), con panna (with whipped cream) or con zucchero (with sugar).
For the more adventurous, caffe can be ordered corretto-that is, “corrected” with a spike of liqueur. Often this is cognac or nut liqueur, but can also be Bailey’s, or the egg-based wine, Vov. And on a steamy summer day, few things are more refreshing than a caffe shakerato, which, amusingly, is just what it sounds like: a combination of espresso, sugar and ice which is shaken vigorously until foamy. Many bars even have a specialty house coffee drink. Like all of Italian cuisine, Italian beverages are meant to be savored!
Paolo Donati is an expert in authenic Italian gourmet food products. He shares information and writes about his passion for Italian cuisine and local Italian food producers at DiscoverItalianFood.com. For more information on authentic Italian drinks, go to his Web site.