Experience Happy Hour the Italian way: with an amaro aperitif. As we know from its wines, Italy does not mess around with its drinks. Yet quaffing Italian spirits means much more than pinot grigio and chianti.
For centuries, beyond crushing grapes, Italian growers and distillers have looked to other elements that make tasty – and even healthful – drinks. Many amaros originally trace their origins to monasteries or pharmacies, hailed as healing drinks for a range of ailments (see: quinine in tonic) and to help digestion.
From that history, amaros are now made commercially in Italy and across Europe, crafted by mixing natural herbs, roots, and fruits with sugar, and set to age. Anything from saffron to licorice to rhubarb to bark can be tossed in there. The result: the amaro, meaning “bitter” in Italian. They range in ABV from 20% to 40%, and are delicious. Amaros can be sipped over ice, but are more commonly used to give deep, earthy flavors to cocktails.
Amaros in America: More than the Aperol Spritz
In the States, we’re used to stronger cocktails, which is why the negroni cocktail, which uses Campari (made from grapefruit) has become so popular. But amaros are also being used to create aperitivos, or pre-dinner drinks. Also known as Happy Hour.
For Chef Logan McGear of Rosario, this is his inspiration. He is “elevating the idea of happy hour,” he says. The aperitivo hour in Italy is a fashionable affair, he explains, of suits and pearls and bubbly drinks. The most famous aperitif, the aperol spritz, have become enormously popular over the past couple years on both sides of the Atlantic.
“But there’s more to amaros than Aperol,” says Chef Logan.
Aperitifs “are bright and fun and have relatively low ABV, so they can be ordered at any time of the day.” Logan has been so taken by amaros that he has one of the most extensive selection at any bar in the city, at more than 70 amari labels. And he’s so proud of this collection that all of his craft cocktails are on his Happy Hour list.
“Making drinks is special,” he explains, so he curates a specific list as a best-of.
Rosario pours an Americano (Campari, Carpano Antica, Soda) on tap, along with an Aperol Spritz (Aperol, Pamplemousse, Soda, Prosecco), as they’ve become so popular.
Yet he also serves unique aperitif cocktails like the Arrivederci Felice, which includes St. Germain (an elderflower liquor in an elegant bottle), cantelope, and sage, which are two “absolutely quintessential Italian flavors,” according to McGear.
“I want to honor these ingredients, instead of just pouring drinks for the sake. Plus, it perks people up for dinner.”
Logan also notes that in Italy, it’s common to have finger food during aperitivo hour, which he offers as well. Olives and almonds are standard, but the menu’s also influenced by the chef and bar manager from their experience in Italy. “They’re like tapas,” he explained. He’s especially pleased with the vegan meatballs, making the snack highly accessible to all vustomers, as well as the arancini, the truly classic fried rissoto balls.
Rosario’s Happy Hour runs Monday through Friday from 5pm to 7pm, and Saturday and Sunday 3pm to 7pm.
DC’s Appetite for Aperitivo Hour: Stronger than a Negroni
Over in Shaw, Dean Gold’s Happy Hour menu at Dino’s Grotto exemplifies the same spirit. Having spent decades traveling to and living in Italy, Dean is a proponent of amaro liquors, especially when creating cocktails. “In Venice, they love the aperol spritz, and it’s been on my menu since we opened in Cleveland Park,” he said. Now, his Happy Hour reflects his philosophy of using high-quality, interesting ingredients, and a menu of accessible drinks that also are respectful of Italian culture and history.
“Amaros are a passion for us,” he said, ordering small-batch and underutilized spirits as well as more popular ones.
Dean has a menu of eight negronis, all of which are available at all-night Negroni Happy Hour on Wednesdays. And since he likes to feature local spirits, the most important drink on his menu is the DC-groni, which has Green Hat gin, Don Ciccio cinque aperitivo, capitoline rose vermouth, and camomile bitters. The Aperol Spritz, of course, is on Happy Hour as well, along with all of his craft cocktails – the majority of which include amaros.
As for food, Dean works with his bar manager and chef for dishes that draw from classic Italian recipes. One of the most popular, from Tuscany, is the Vadouvan Deviled Eggs, topped with crispy prosciutto, salsa verde, anchovy sriracha aioli. He also highlights a Venetian-style brushcetta, which, unline in other parts of Itality that uses tomato, includes garlic, rainbow chard, and mozzarella.
And don’t expect that you’ll find the same thing each time you visit for Happy Hour. “There’s lots of seasonality, but what’s exciting is using the macerated fruit long after the season’s over. So strawberry in the fall, for instance.”
Dino’s Grotto’s Happy Hour runs Tuesday-Saturday 5-7pm; Sunday-Monday all night.
Around the city, other restaurants have also fallen in love with amaros and aperitifs. Urbana has recently launched an aperitif Happy Hour, using interesting amaros like nonino, which is grappa-based. Le Diplomate, while French, also has a recent aperitif happy hour, with many cocktails also using amaros – including suze, a French and Swiss apéritif made from the gentian root, which has an earthy and citrusy flavor.
Get in on the trend! The next time you’re at Happy Hour, order amaros and aperitifs to up your HH game.