An Italian meal isn’t simply a means to obtain nourishment; it is a thoughtfully curated production spanning multiple courses that are each accompanied by a carefully selected beverage to compliment the food and lubricate the lively discussion that will inevitably ensue. You may start with a classic aperitivo cocktail like an Aperol Spritz, before moving on to wine for the main course, subsequently finding space for dessert and coffee, and finally rounding out the meal with a digestivo or digestif. This drink is meant to aid digestion and is especially helpful after a lengthy (and filling!) Italian meal. While I cannot vouch for the scientific credibility that a digestivo actually aids digestion, I can attest that they are a delicious and indispensable ending to any comprehensive Italian dining experience.
Generally speaking, a digestivo is a liqueur that is served with or without ice—depending on your preference and the particular type—and slowly sipped on after the completion of a meal. Honestly, my relationship with digestivi wasn’t love at first sip. As someone who doesn’t drink much liquor—and definitely not without a mixer—the idea of slowly sipping on a liqueur did not sound appetizing. After continued attempts to learn to love digestivi, I found myself grimacing less and savoring more. Shortly after, as they say piano, piano, my palette changed and I soon found myself raising a hand to be counted in the after-dinner digestivo order.
When enjoying a meal at a restaurant, oftentimes friendly restaurant owners will offer you a complimentary digestivo as a small but appreciated gesture of thanks for your patronage. I feel particularly content when a meal is capped off with a digestivo on the house and a chat with the owner. Something about the entire exchange leaves me feeling warm from the inside out, perhaps it’s the liqueur, but more likely it’s the sentiment behind the offering. Like most things related to food and beverage in Italy, there is always a clear intention and focus on the experience and how it can be shared and enjoyed with loved ones. So, I like to think that when the owner makes the effort to stop by our table and offer us a digestivo, it’s because they want to ensure that our meal ends on a proper note and that we all leave with happy stomachs.
Tpyes of Digestivi:
A personal favorite, amaro which translates to bitter, is a mix of alcohol, herbs, spices and sometimes fruits depending on the particular kind. Amaro is typically brown in color and served at room temperature, chilled or ghiacciata (over ice). I prefer my amaro chilled or ghiacciata as the cold temperature is refreshing and gives the liqueur a smoother texture.
Popular choices include Vecchio Amaro del Capo (Calabria), Amaro Montenegro (Bologna), Amaro Averna (Sicily), Amaro Braulio (Bormio), and Amaro Fernet-Branca (Milan). You are certain to hear at least one of these options when ordering your digestivo after dinner.
While these are the larger amaro producers in Italy, you can go to almost any small town and find a local amaro production that is unique to that specific part of the country. If you’re at a restaurant and they offer the local amaro, always say yes!
Sadly, my palette has not quite adapted to appreciate grappa, as it tends to have a higher alcohol content and be just a little too strong for my liking. Grappa is crafted by combining and distilling the fermented leftover grape remnants from the winemaking process, called pomace, and alcohol. Grappa can vary in color from completely clear to a shade of light brown. The two main types are grappa bianca and grappa barricata.
Typically this liqueur is sipped at room temperature and has a bit of a burning sensation as you slowly sip on it. Definitely not for the faint of heart nor is it advised for those who don’t appreciate a strong alcoholic taste. Nonetheless, grappa is a highly regarded staple of Italian digestivi.
Probably the most famous digestivo and the commonly known outside of Italy is limoncello. This bright yellow beverage hails from Southern Italy, with much of the liqueurs production taking place in Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, where the lemon trees are aplenty. By far the sweetest digestivo on the list, limoncello is made by steeping lemon peels in vodka or highly concentrated ethanol until it’s oils are released. This resulting liquid is then mixed with simple syrup to give it a sweeter flavor. Limoncello is usually served chilled or ghiacciata and is an absolute must if you’re visiting southern Italy.
While these liqueurs are easily the most popular and widespread options when selecting your post-meal drink, many Italians also enjoy sipping on amaretto, whisky, scotch, brandy and a myriad of other liqueurs and liquors.
For your next dining experience in Italy or at home, find an option that you can enjoy, while you sit and savor in the end of a satisfying meal. Better yet, find one you love and take part in the tradition of sharing an Italian digestivo experience with a dinner guest. You’ll slowly find yourself looking forward to the relaxing ritual of your post-dinner digestivo.