A Brief, But Not Too Brief, History of the Italian-American Cocktail
The progression from amaro and grappa to disco drinks and back again.
When Italians first began coming to this country in numbers, back in the 1880s and 1890s, many of them did what Irish and German and other immigrants did before them and went into business serving the food and drink of the old country to their fellow immigrants. Italian food and drinkways, being rather more alien to the prevailing American standard than either German or Irish ones were, took extra work. Things had to be imported. Good, dense pasta asciutta in all its myriad shapes, olive oil, the essential cheeses and cured meats, so on and so forth. After all, you can’t make a saltimbocca alla Romana without prosciutto or a stracciatella without well-aged parmigiano, and life without saltimbocca or stracciatella is no kind of life at all.
The same held true for Italian drinks. At home, Italians drank wine with their meals, perhaps preceded by a light, bitter amaro aperitivo and followed by a heavy, bitter amaro digestivo or perhaps a spot of grappa. That was civilized. Americans drank whiskey and cocktails and that lager beer that the Germans had brought over a few years back, and if they used bitters at all it was dashed into their whiskey. True, Italian vermouth was widely available due to its popularity in the Manhattan and the Martini, but those amari and that wine needed special importing.
Once supplied with the necessary stuff, the first Italian immigrants to open restaurants and bars kept things largely in the community; the only Americans you’d be likely to see in an Italian restaurant were the foodies of their day or Bohemians on a budget. In general, restaurants were preferred; what Italian bars that existed were more along the lines of cafes and social clubs than American-style brass-rail, knock-’em-back joints. Neither the bars nor the restaurants were famous for their cocktails.
There were exceptions. Victor Baracca’s restaurant on Stone Street in Lower Manhattan employed the talented Jacob “Jack” Grohusko as bartender. Grohusko, of Russian Jewish extraction, nonetheless introduced drinks such as the “Baracca’s Cocktail,” three parts Italian vermouth to one part Fernet-Branca, up. This was nothing more than the Italian, on-the-fly way of making an aperitivo—take vermouth and splash in a digestivo—in cocktail dress. There were several other Fernet drinks in his 1908 Jack’s Manual, all of them variations on the same thing.
Fernet-Branca appears in a few other cocktail books of the day, used pretty much as Grohusko did. One also finds Ferro-China Bisleri, another Italian amaro, perhaps even more extreme in flavor (it had a blood-like tang of iron), used the same way, but this sort of first-stage Italian cocktail did not catch on. It was too bitter, too intense, too Italian. Its component ingredients fared little better: Fernet and the small handful of other amari that were imported remained ethnic specialty products, and as for grappa—well, when Broadway casting director Jonathan Briscoe tried it at Vincenzo and Eugenia Sardi’s restaurant in New York he dubbed it “Fourth of July” because it was like a fireworks show on his palate.
That was in 1922, during Prohibition. With the passing of the Volstead Act, the legion of small Italian restaurants that dotted parts of New York and San Francisco and Chicago and New Orleans and wherever else Italians settled in numbers faced a dilemma. An Italian would not want to eat without wine, and selling wine was illegal. With gastronomy in one pan of the scale and the law in the other, the sensible side of the scale won out and a great many of these places suddenly found themselves in the speakeasy business. And once they were selling wine and food, they might as well sell a little liquor, too, right? And not just that weird Italian stuff. Bacardi. White Horse. Canadian Club, like that—or “Bacardi,” “White Horse” and “Canadian Club.” You never knew really what you were getting, particularly when the old, rough, secretive Sicilian and Calabrian networks for evading the authorities came into the business.
Men like Domenico “Nick Martini” Setteducati in New York, Amelio Pacini in San Francisco, and Adolfo Renucci and Agostino “Gus” Sciacqua in Chicago went from waiters, cooks and busboys to bartenders and hosts overnight. But speakeasies couldn’t be run like the old our-thing Italian restaurants. Speakeasies were for everybody—they had to be: if you wanted to stay in business, you had to pay a lot of people. That meant that the drinks were no longer from the old country. You couldn’t get the wine, anyway, and while you could get some of the bitters—allowed in by Prohibition law as medicines—you couldn’t persuade people to drink them.
When repeal came, most of these speakeasies reopened not as bars, but as restaurants, and Italian ones at that. But the cocktails they sold at the bar were the same thoroughly American things they sold during Prohibition, now made with reputable booze. Truth be told, the food was no longer as Italian as it had been back in the 1910s, either. Italian food was becoming Italian-American food. There were big, thick steaks, there was cheese on everything. Portions were bigger, the quirky, odd edges of Italian cuisine were rounded off and regional differences ignored, with dishes from northern Lombardy squatting on menus next to ones from Sicily.
This process of Americanization was greatly accelerated by the war years. From 1940, when shipping lanes closed down, there were no Italian imports until 1947 or 1948, when a devastated Europe was able to begin shipping things to America again. By the 1950s, places such as Sardi’s in New York, Amelio’s in San Francisco, and Renucci’s and Gus’s in Chicago were American institutions: places where you could down a Manhattan or an Old-Fashioned at the bar, drink Scotch Highballs with your steak, salad and baked potato, and end the meal with a Stinger or a Brandy Alexander. You could also have linguine with white clam sauce and veal Marsala, accompanied by a straw-covered bottle of Chianti and tamped down with a pony-glass of Strega or Galliano, the two most popular of the very limited field of available Italian liqueurs, but that path was strictly optional
Then came the 1960s, with all its consciousness-raising, diversity-celebrating, and ethnic-cheerleading. Assimilation was out, Italian-American pride was in. Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel, The Godfather, was on the best-seller lists for 67 weeks, becoming for a time the most widely sold book ever. Sure, it presented a picture of the Italian experience in America that was somewhat … complicated. But if you can overlook all the felonies and criminal conspiracies and adultery and whatnot, its characters were a lively bunch and for every Italian-American, as they were now calling themselves, who thought the book and the instant-classic 1972 movie that followed it were making his or her people look bad, there was one who thought any publicity was good publicity.
This renewed sense of identity highlighted a need: all those spaghetti & steak joints suddenly noticed that there wasn’t much going out from the bar that said “this establishment is proud to be Italian.” One of the consequences was that, in the Disco Drink-era of the 1970s, among all the candy-sweet, suggestively named alcoholic confections that were in style, one often found the Negroni being offered.
Now, this was a legitimately Italian drink, even though its creator only thought to splash gin in his vermouth-and-Campari Americano because he had spent years as a fencing instructor and gambler in New York. As such, it was plenty sweet, but also plenty bitter. Italians like bitterness. Americans at the time, not so much. That meant that most of the spirits Italians actually drank back home in Italy were unlikely to fill the bill. There were a couple, though, that just might work.
Galliano, for one. This 80-proof, lightly-herbal, vanilla-forward liqueur from the gritty naval port of Livorno, in Tuscany, was nowhere near a national brand in Italy; it’s not even mentioned in Italian Wines and Liquors, the guide the Italian Federation of Producers of Wines, Liquors and the Like published in 1953 to show that the industry was back in business for export after the war, nor is it found in Gino Neri’s 1960 I Liquori Italiani. But it had been in America before Prohibition, come back after Repeal, and was the key ingredient in the widely-popular Harvey Wallbanger.
It didn’t take long for Dominic “Duke Antone” Paolantonio, the Wallbanger’s self-claimed inventor and proprietor of a mixology school in Hartford, Connecticut, to come out with the Italian Fascination: an ounce each of Galliano and heavy cream, half an ounce of Kahlua and a quarter triple sec, shaken with ice and strained into a Champagne flute. He also had a flaming “Coffee Nero” with the stuff. He may also have had a hand in the “Italian Heather,” which was nothing more than a Rusty Nail with Galliano instead of Drambuie.
While those drinks got around some, helped in large part by Galliano’s importer papering the country with a 1970 recipe booklet featuring them and other concoctions, none of them really caught the public’s imagination. It fell to another company to crack the market wide open. In 1968 or thereabouts, I.L.L.V.A. (I won’t spell out the acronym), a family-owned distilling firm from Lombardy, found an importer for Amaretto Di Saronno, another liqueur very little known in its native land. The family had been making this 56-proof extract of apricot pits since the early part of the century. Tasting like almonds (closely related to apricots) sweet and nutty and not at all herbal, medicinal or bitter. In 1972, either I.L.L.V.A. or its representatives did what Duke Antone should have and plucked the most obvious name going for their own version of the Rusty Nail. The Godfather—Scotch and Amaretto di Saronno on the rocks—was an instant success, as were its two spinoffs, the Godmother (with “feminine” vodka instead of the “masculine” Scotch) and the Godchild, the same with cream.
The Godfather led to the Amaretto Sour, originally just Amaretto and lemon juice but made in mediocre bars from coast to coast with sour mix, and, for those who found that too challenging, the Bocce Ball (spelled variously), which was basically a Harvey Wallbanger with Amaretto instead of both the Galliano and the vodka. That one was so innocuous that it was served onboard the TWA charter jet that flew Pope John-Paul II around America in 1979.
There were a couple of other Italian liqueurs that found their way into American bars. Sambucca, another little-known cordial, this one anise-flavored, was used in some drinks, although its real niche was as a part of after-dinner service, where it was put in a little shot glass, garnished with a coffee bean or three and set on fire. In the early 1980s, it was joined by limoncello, a tooth-grindingly sweet regional specialty from the Amalfi coast.
By then, though, the culinary revolution was underway. There was a new generation of Italian restaurants, more adventurous and less Americanized. These were places where they would list their grappas and their amari on the menu, with the full expectation that their clientele would order them. This led in turn to the cocktail revolution, where the bartenders, when they weren’t doing shots of Fernet-Branca with their friends, saw no problem using it in their cocktails. Suddenly, American bartenders and their customers were using formerly-challenging Italian drinks—amari, aperitivi, what have you—to make drinks that were even more challenging than what you’d find in Italy. Rhubarb amaro would find itself mixed with mezcal, funky old sherry and a few drops of yuzu juice. Grappa would be worked into an Old-Fashioned, topped off with a float of navy rum.
Now, in the final twist of the knife, this 21st-century extreme mixology has found its way back to Italy, where bars such as the Jerry Thomas Project in Rome, Nottingham Forest in Milano and the Antica Café Torinese in Trieste are making the same kind of intense, modern cocktails that one finds in New York or San Francisco. At the same time, bartenders in the US are perversely looking back in nostalgia at the Godfather and the Amaretto Sour and suchlike confections. It’s a funny old world. If somebody tries to serve me an Italian Fascination they’re gonna get punched, though.