Mar
01
2014

Imbiber

Enchanting Bassano del Grappa on a river at the base of the Italian Alps

Enchanting Bassano del Grappa on a river at the base of the Italian Alps

Adventures in Bassano del Grappa, Italy

Visiting a Grappa Legend & a Hidden Absinthe Bar

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

View of the river from the Nardini tasting room

View of the river from the Nardini tasting room

This October I spent a magical day in the birthplace of grappa, enchanting Bassano del Grappa, a Northern Italian town (in the Veneto region) on the river Brenta at the base of the Italian Alps.

Since 1779, one of the great families of grappa and Italian liqueurs, Nardini, has been crafting a wide range of spirits in a distillery on the outskirts of town, while their historic tasting room sits right on the corner of Bassano del Grappa’s historic bridge with scenic views of the river Brenta and the Italian Alps.

(Photo source: www.nardini.it)

(Photo source: www.nardini.it)

Funny enough, Antonio Guarda Nardini, one of the Nardini brothers and Managing Director of the company, was away when I was in Bassano, but we met up weeks later in San Francisco to talk (and taste) Nardini. He and the family continue to work tirelessly to export more Nardini products to the US and other countries.

Currently, it’s the release of Nardini Bitter (24% ABV), a rosy-red, Campari-esque aperitivo that is more bitter but also sweeter than Campari, heavy on fresh orange notes, laced with bitter orange, sweet orange, Chinese rhubarb root, gentian, vanilla, even absinthe. The bitter lingers blessedly on the finish with hints of pepper. As one of the legendary spirits in the portfolio, it’s a treat to finally see it hit the US. Their Fernet-style product is awaiting US approval, while their 80 proof grappas (regular, a blend aged a minimum of three years – and riserva, a blend aged a minimum of five years) are also slated to hit the US in 2014.

The steps leading to Palazzo delle Misture, under the right awning

Steps to Palazzo delle Misture, under the right awning

Antonio came to US in December as part of promotional tour with FederalVini to promote grape-based products (wine, spirits, vinegar) exported from Italy. With his affable sense of humor, he says he’s, “… fed up with grappa being perceived as the leftovers.” I run into it often enough myself: the perception of grappa being rough-and-tumble, harsh, as it is made from grape pomace (skins, stems, seeds, pulp). I love earthy, funky, heavy-hitting grappas, having drunk some pretty rustic ones in the hills north of Lucca (in Tuscany) and other parts of Italy. But there’s a wide array of elegant grappa, Nardini included with the famed Poli just up the street, that is complex and fascinating as a category – recently the category of grappa officially became defined as only produced and bottled in Italy.

Palazzo delle Misture Nardini Manhattan flash-chilled in a bottle via liquid nitrogen

At Palazzo delle Misture: Nardini Manhattan flash-chilled in a bottle via liquid nitrogen

Palazzo delle Misture Nardini Manhattan post-liquid nitrogen

At Palazzo delle Misture: Nardini Manhattan post-liquid nitrogen

Palazzo delle Misture bar

Palazzo delle Misture bar

The great delight of my day in Bassano del Grappa was a bar I had stumbled upon online researching places to eat and drink in town weeks before: Palazzo delle Misture (which I named one of the best international bar experiences of 2013, a year in which I visited bars in 25 cities and 10 different countries). This treasure of a bar, run by passionate and informed brothers, Gianluca and Andrea Camazzola, is an unexpected oasis of absinthe and classic cocktail books in this dreamy, Italian village.

Upstairs at Palazzo delle Misture

Upstairs at Palazzo delle Misture

Gianluca researches classic American cocktail recipes and the history of all things cocktail, clearly influencing his refined drinks in the intimate bar with upstairs lounge and classic absinthe service. I sampled a range of cocktails on my visit.

At Nardini's tasting room

At Nardini’s tasting room

One cocktail created by Andrea, Red Cross, is named in honor of Hemmingway, who served as an ambulance driver during WWI in Bassano del Grappa (a cocktail presented at 2013 Vin Italy, one of the largest wine events in the world). Red Cross is nearly equal parts of Aquavite di Vinaccia Riserva Grappa, fresh lemon, and a house red pepper syrup (pepperoncino rosso), complex yet refreshing topped with soda.

Their Nardini Manhattan wins for presentation. Mixing Aquavite di Vinaccia Riserva Grappa, red vermouth and Angostura bitters, they pour the cocktail into an empty mini bottle of Nardini’s riserva, cover their face with masks and spray the bottle with liquid nitrogen for a swift, frosty freeze. It’s dramatic… and well-mixed.

Palazzo delle Misture's absinthe cabinet upstairs

Palazzo delle Misture’s absinthe cabinet upstairs

On the gin side, they craft a variation on a Bronx cocktail from Hugo R. Ensslin’s self-published 1917 book Recipes for Mixed Drinks. They muddle orange and bitter peel in the gin with pineapple and Dolin dry vermouth, resulting in a dry, bright imbibement.

Named in honor of a battle fought on Mount Grappa in June 1918 where the Italian alpine and infantry soldiers defeated the Austro-Hungarian troops trying to invade Bassano, Blood’s Solstice shows off unaged Aquavite White Grappa, vivacious mixed with Fever Tree Ginger Beer, Nardini Bitter, honey, Luxardo Sangue Morlacco (a vibrant cherry liqueur from nearby Luxardo) and lime, garnished with a skewer of blueberries.

It’s rare to find craft cocktail bars in Italy in general (although that is changing), much less in a small town. Here is a bar that would stand out in a major city… and certainly does in this enchanting city. As the birthplace of grappa, the bar showcases it accordingly – alongside absinthe, whisk(e)y and other global spirits.

My favorite way to drink grappa is neat. As Antonio told me, “Grappa is an after dinner drink that should rinse your palate.” It cleanses, invigorates and delights simultaneously.

Palazzo delle Misture's

Palazzo delle Misture’s Blood Solstice

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Dec
01
2007

Wandering Traveler

LAKE COMO, ITALY

Lake Como is one of many idyllic regions of my dear Italy. Yes, it’s another lake in a region filled with lakes, but one with cliffs rising sharp, softly carpeted with green, out of shimmering blue, offering a majestic yet intimate connection of water and hillside.

I recently stayed in a most magnificent villa on the lake, on a cliff jutting out over the town of Mennagio, with views directly across to Bellagio and Varenna. In returning to Italy for a third time, the same and greatest joys remain at the forefront: perfect coffee (cappuccinos in the morning, espresso the rest of the day), blissful gelato, leisurely pace, attitude and charm, culture and art, and, obviously, divine food.

I share with you a few favorite finds from my week in Lake Como:

Villa Melzi

Villa Melzi

Silvio – After a walk through magically romantic Villa Melzi, then wandering along the riverside and up hills, we finally found Loppia di Bellagio Hotel, where family-run Silvio restaurant resides. They did not open till 7pm so as it was 6pm, they brought my party bottles of wine and Prosecco (Italian champagne) which we savored as the sun set over the stunning lake and hills. A pool filled with turtles enlivened the scene until we were escorted inside the glass-walled dining room looking out over the water. Silvio is known for fresh fish caught daily from the lake – you can even arrange to go out on a fishing boat to bring in the days’ catch. With warm service and an easy mix of locals and hotel lodgers dining, we began our feast. A house specialty is Agoni, lake sardines prepared in a style called “Missultini”, an ancient preparation only known by the most experienced fisherman. The sardines are salted, dried in the sun, then pressed between laurel leaves in cans; the whole process takes months. They’re served drizzled with olive oil and have a smoky accent to the briny saltiness. Primi (first course) was a divine Risotto with flaky, perfectly grilled Perch (again, caught fresh), covered in Parmesan, Sage and Butter. Magnifico! Secondo (second course) was Veal in a rustic brown sauce with succulent Parma Ham layered across the Veal. All in all, a meal to remember… and quite reasonably priced.

Silvio

Silvio

Barchetta – One of the best meals of my trip, Michelin-rated Barchetta is up one of many steep, charming steps of downtown Bellagio. To the right of the cozy bar on the ground floor is an intriguing wood door leading you up stairs to a second floor, open-air patio, ideal on a gorgeous day, such as the one we had. An interesting starter was the Gambieri (plump shrimps) in red bean puree with olives and asparagus. The ecstasy-inducing winner of the meal was a special of the day: flawless Gnocchi served with fresh lake-caught Pike, pushed over the edge with grilled onions, asparagus, sage, rosemary and juicy tomatoes, sautéed in olive oil and butter. Other highlights: Gnocchi in a tomato cream sauce with grilled Porcini mushrooms, and a savory Pork sautéed in Armangnac, served over a Polenta cake in a creamy Gorgonzola sauce with a Parsnip Parmesan Spinach. Dessert was a rich Dark Chocolate Souffle covered in a divine banana butter cream, and warm Zabaglione (frothy egg whites mixed with alcohol). Following this seamless meal, I craved nothing but a long nap filled with dreams of Barchetta.

Villa d'Este

Villa d'Este

Villa d’Este – This breathtaking ancient villa sitting majestically on the Lake in the town of Cernobbio and is now a very expensive hotel. The grounds are open to anyone and well worth a sunset stroll, like The Renaissance Man and I shared on our anniversary. The restaurant is very costly and from reviews, does not seem worth the high premium. But for drinks lakeside, it’s quite a romantic rendezvous.

Gato Nero

Gato Nero

Il Gatto Nero, Via Monte Santo 69, Rovenna, 031-512042 – Il Gato Nero doesn’t have a website but their praises are sung in many a review, raved about by locals and travelers alike. With brilliant views of the lake and nighttime glittering lights, it’s like a magical tree house perched in the hills above Cernobbio. As twisty roads continuously changed names, The Renaissance Man and I had almost given up when we rounded a corner to see it perched on the edge of a cliff. No parking existed so we pulled up by the entrance where a man rushed out, ordered us to follow him (we assumed as he spoke Italian only), jumped in a car, led us further up the hill to a parking perch, then drove us back down to the restaurant. A unique start to an enchanting meal. Words inadequately describe the setting, warmed by heat lamps, candles and town lights shimmering below. I highly recommend the deck, though multi-floored dining rooms are likewise cozy and glowing. Service was spotty: a mix of attentive timeliness and sheer neglect. The food was tasty though not as idyllic as Barchetta or savory as Silvio. Butternut Squash and Hazlenut Risotto hit the spot, though I have had a more lush version of the same dish at San Francisco’s authentic Incanto. A puff pastry vegetable starter was probably the finest note of the whole meal as a grilled butterfish entrée was fresh but bland with no sauce and minimal vegetables. Even though we had better food on Lake Como, the setting alone was worth a visit. On a clear night, it’s nearly heavenly.

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