From antipasti to dolci, a traditional multicourse Italian dinner can leave you feeling like you've had too much of a good thing. Enter grappa, atraditional Italian digestivo. It's an after-dinner brandy that looks harmless but packs a significant wallop. It's also the perfect antidote to a big meal; a few sips help ward off languor, leaving you instead with a warm, pleasant, even slightly euphoric feeling.
Distilled from pomace (grape skins, seeds and juice left in the winepress after winemaking), grappa has been consumed for centuries in Italy, originally by grape-growing peasants who didn't want to waste any bit of their crop. These days, thanks to a handful of producers who import it to the U.S., grappa has gone from an unsophisticated, country drink to an elegant metropolitan nightcap with a devoted following.
Because it comes from pomace, grappa retains a wine-like aroma, a perfumed mix of floral, honey and fruit characteristics. It offers a touch of sweetness along with heat. Grappa is highly alcoholic, usually 80 to 100 proof, and while it's traditionally sipped straight in a small, tulip-shaped glass at room temperature, it's also served cold in a frozen glass, poured over a scoop of gelato or in a cup of coffee.
Beginners should start with one of the widely available grappas from Bartolo Nardini, a family-run distillery in the Veneto region of Northern Italy. Nardini has been making grappa for more than two centuries. Its basic bottling, the Acquavite di Vinaccia Bianca, is clean and smooth, with a hint of anisette. Scotch fans should try Nardini's Acquavite di Vinaccia Riserva, which has been aged for five years in oak casks that impart a burnt caramel sweetness. Nonino and Jacopo Poli are two other renownedfamily-run producers who have made a splash in the States. In 1973, Nonino began the trend of producing separate grappas from individual grapes in Italy's Friuli region. Today, Nonino's Cru Monovitigno Picolit, made from the rare picolit grape, is justifiably famous for its floral scents and flavors of fig and black pepper. Jacopo Poli Po Traminer offers nuttier, herb-inflected flavors of pine, vanilla and almonds.
So, go ahead-indulge in the marinated olives, the pasta, the fish and the last bite of tiramisu. Then cap it off with a glass of grappa-the perfect curtain call to an indulgent evening.
Ready for more? Nonino makes unusual and delicious variations on their celebrated grappa. ÙE is a brandy distilled from whole grapes, presented in beautiful hand-blown bottles with colorful glass-topped corks. The Moscato Cru is more gentle and delicate than grappa, with lime rind and mint flavors.Best of all, perhaps, is their newest line of honey brandies, Gioiello Nonino. Try the Citrus Tree Honey or the Chestnut Honey varieties-delicately sweet and exotically perfumed. They're perfect on their own, or drizzled over vanilla gelato.
GLASS WITH CLASS Various producers have modernized grappa, making it more enticing by producing varieties in hand-blown glass bottles.