“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.” - Henry David Thoreau
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
This Friday, Capitol Hill Housing will host its annual fundraising event, Omnivorous, at The Summit on East Pike Street. Omnivorous is the affordable housing organization’s palate-focused shindig, bringing together some of the neighborhood’s finest purveyors of food and drink to present small bites for ticket-holding donors and VIPs. The businesses on-hand run the gamut from fine dining establishments like Café Presse and The Tin Table, to loveable community haunts like Little Uncle and High 5 Pie. One of the newer additions to the lineup is Artusi, a bar and restaurant on East Pine Street that leans on an oft-overlooked end of the liquor spectrum: aperitivi and digestivi.
In the 20th century, brandy, cordials and other before-and-after-dinner drinks fell out of fashion among American drinkers. The Prohibition guaranteed that the cocktail would be king Stateside for the foreseeable future, so a lot of interesting bottles gathered dust or stopped being imported altogether. The classic bar revival that has characterized venues in cities like Seattle over the past decade has gone a long way to reviving interest in these idiosyncratic tinctures. Artusi puts its love of the stuff front and center, but the bottle list can be a bit intimidating for newcomers.
The first major category, aperitivi, are light drinks meant to be consumed at the beginning of a meal. The traditional, full Italian dinner has a 10-step structure bookended with booze, though nothing in high proof or quantities. The aperitivo is a refreshment usually taken with olives, nuts or other nibbles before guests take their seats.
While sparkling wine, like Champagne, Prosecco and Spumante are high on the list of classic aperitivi, there’s something more uniquely Italian in the bitter sensibilities of drinks like Campari and Aperol, both big players on the Artusi cocktail menu. Campari hails from the post-colonial period of European drink craft, mixing the flavors of the bitter chinotto orange native to Italy with the Caribbean herb cascarilla, a common ingredient in tonics. Most cocktail nerds see Campari and think “Negroni,” a gin drink that uses Campari as a bittering agent. Aperol is essentially a milder version of Campari, bearing a similar flavor profile, but around half the alcohol content.
At the opposite end of the traditional Italian dinner, the more crowded field of digestivi offers a wider array of flavors. So named because they were thought to aid in digestion, these drinks put a nice capper on the marathon that is supper done right. American drinkers are likely already acquainted with brandy, the dark and sweet distilled wine often served in a deep, bowl-like glass, which is meant to make the nose an active participate in each sip. It’s only recently, though, that us Yanks have taken an interest in grappa, a particular kind of brandy made from the parts of grape plants that don’t go into the wine-making process.
Grappa is its own beast entirely. Everything from the skins, pulp, seeds and even stems go into the process, the resulting soup enjoying a good turn through the still until the final product is clean and sharp. Fine grappas have a pleasant scent, but the cheaper varieties signal their impurities in their vapor. Whether young or aged, grappa is a unique and bracing alternative to the high-sweet of grape juice brandy. Artusi has a few bottles on the shelf that can serve as the start of an education. The old-style Bertagnolli shows up in one of their cocktails, for those who only wish to dip a toe into that particular pool.
Leaning more toward liqueurs, the field of Italian digestivi lands squarely in a camp of sweet, syrupy concoctions that have fared much better in the American bars of the past century. The lemon-flavored Limoncello has been a fixture in one particular cocktail, the sugar-rimmed Lemon Drop, for ages, while the sweet almond Amaretto pops up as often in desserts as it does in cocktails. Those looking for something a bit more challenging should look into Amaro. It’s a good companion to Campari, bringing some of those bitter orange flavors to the mix with a broader palate of sugar and spice. For antique sweets enthusiasts, some Amari have been known to evoke the taste of ribbon candy.
Perhaps the most oddball digestivo from the Italian tradition is the dark, deceptive drink called Fernet. Technically an Amaro, in the sense that it’s a bitter Italian liqueur, Fernet has a color like black coffee, and a flavor that mixes the bitterness of a double espresso with the left-field jolt of herbs rendered to essential oils. On its own, Fernet has a learning curve and it’s the very definition of an acquired taste, but for those who do acquire it, it’s a taste without equal. Artusi has a shot served straight up in a rocks glass at happy hour for enthusiasts and the curious. It pairs well with hazelnuts and an open mind bordering on personal anarchy.
Artusi is well worth a visit, even for those who won’t be hobnobbing with the Capitol Hill Housing folks at Omnivorous. It’s a nice date space, and good place to try something new.
1535 14TH AVE.