What is an Italian Digestif?
Fancy a little after-dinner drink? In Italy, that’s a digestivo – literally something to help you digest after a heavy meal. The Italian digestif is not a cocktail but a ‘short’ drink with a mid-high alcohol content served in a small glass, often neat but sometimes with a little ice (or kept very cold in the fridge or freezer).
The most usual form of a digestivo is an herb-based drink. It is true that the bitter taste produced by some herbs in liqueurs can give the feeling that they’re helping the digestive processes, but in reality, these herbs help digestion only when consumed in other ways (e.g., in infusions or herbal teas). Because they are high in alcohol (and sugar) they actually slow gastric processes. But let’s not let a little science get in the way of a pleasant after-dinner drink!
There’s an important distinction to be made. Digestivi in Italy can take many forms and the herb-based drinks are often lumped together in the after-dinner drinks category with some of the sweet fruit-based ones (more properly called liquori or liqueurs) and, of course grappa (which is a distillato, or distillate)!
It’s important to remember that the digestivo is usually its own dinner course! After the meal there’s coffee (never served with dessert) and then the digestivo to round off.
Good To Know: A digestivo is sometimes called an ammazzacaffe: literal translation ‘a coffee killer.’ Maybe it’s because the coffee perks you up whereas the alcohol in the digestivo calms you down again. In reality, the ammazzacaffe is something that ‘kills’ the flavor of coffee in the mouth and be extended to include international favorites like whisky and brandy.
Most Common Italian Digestifs & Where To Drink Them
Every region in Italy has its favorite digestivo.
Many people enjoy making alcohol-based drinks at home and chosen ingredients depend on what commonly grows in the area where they live. In mountainous regions, there are a vast variety of herbs and wildflowers to choose from, while in other areas they may choose to macerate fruit peel or berries.
Commercially available versions are found all over Italy (and some internationally), but nothing can beat what your nonno has managed to brew up in his backyard!
The literal translation is ‘bitter’ and some amari are definitely more bitter than others, although sugar content is below 10% and sometimes as low as 2%. With a higher sugar content, the drink often becomes thicker and more viscous and is more bitter-sweet than purely bitter.
Amaro is usually made by aromatizing alcohol with herbs, roots, spices, and natural extracts. There is never less than 15% alcohol and some are a lot stronger. Most amari recipes are carefully kept secrets and while there may be one dominant herb, there can be a blend of up to 40 or more. Amari can be served at room temperature, over ice, or chilled in the fridge or freezer. Amari often find their way into cocktail recipes.
Some of the best-known commercial brands of amaro in Italy:
- Braulio is one of my favorites from the famous ski town of Bormio, near the Stelvio Pass in the Italian Alps.
- Montenegro was created in 1885 to mark the marriage of Italy’s Prince Victor Emanuel III to Princess Elena of Montenegro. The recipe includes oregano, nutmeg, and sweet and bitter oranges.
- Averna is from Sicily and has been sold commercially since the middle of the 19th century. The recipe, invented by Benedictine monks, has never changed and includes myrtle, juniper berries, rosemary, and sage.
- Amaro del Capo is made with twenty-nine herbs, flowers, fruits, and roots from beautiful Calabria. It has to be served at -20°c.
- Fernet-Branca was formulated in Milan and initially sold as a cure for cholera(!). It became extremely popular in the US after prohibition and continued to be sold in pharmacies as a medicinal product.
- Cynar is made from 13 herbs and plants with the dominant one being artichoke (which features on its bottle). The name comes from the Latin, Cynara. It was created in the Northern-Italian city of Padua.
Good to know: One of the most popular digestivi in Italy is… Jaegermeister! Yes, it’s German and no, it’s not meant to be drunk as a ‘Jaeger Bomb,’ but sipped slowly as an after-dinner drink. It has over 60 herbs and spices.
This sweet, lemon-based digestive liqueur is one of Italy’s best-known after-dinner drinks.
Limoncello is most commonly made in the south of Italy, on the Amalfi Coast (around Sorrento) and in the Campania region of Italy as a whole.
It’s usually served very cold and is made by macerating the peel of untreated, unwaxed lemons in sugar and alcohol. It’s actually fairly easy to make and can be a fun experiment to try at home!
It usually contains around 30-33% alcohol. It’s a great base for cakes and desserts and can be added to sponge cake, trifle, cheesecake or gelato.
There’s also a delicious variant – crema di limoncello, which is made with milk or cream.
Other similar digestif/liqueurs are arancello (made with oranges) and meloncello (made with melons).
Good To Know: Limoncello is also called limoncino. It’s exactly the same thing, just a regional variation. It’s called limoncello in the South of Italy and limoncino in the North.
Sambuca is an anise-flavored, colorless digestivo that was first commercially produced by Luigi Manzi in the 19th century. The main ingredient is star anise, distilled to obtain essential oils, but there are also notes of elderflower, licorice, and citrus.
Sambuca is a popular addition to espresso (a caffé corretto) at the end of the meal or with a coffee bean (sambuca con la mosca – literally sambuca with a fly).
The best-known sambuca brand is Molinari, which became well-liked following the Second World War.
Grappa is a very popular Italian after-dinner drink. It’s usually colorless, but can also be pale to deep yellow if aged in barrels. It’s highly alcoholic – anything from 37.5 – 60 percent.
If you know it as ‘jet fuel’ I’m sorry to be blunt but you’ve only ever drunk cheap grappa! In poorly made grappa all you will taste is ethanol, but grappa is known as the wine-lover’s after-dinner drink of choice because it is made from grape marc or pomace (the mass of grape solids – skin, stems and seeds – that remain after pressing).
Excellent grappa is made from single varietals (one particular type of grape); the best is Barolo grappa (distilled from the Nebbiolo grape). These can be aged 9, 12, 15, and even up to 20 years before drinking.
One of Italy’s most famous grappa producers is Marolo, located in the country’s gastronomic capital – Alba, in the Piedmont region.
Mirto is a digestivo made from macerated myrtle berries and leaves. It’s fairly sweet and is most commonly produced on the island of Sardinia, where the berries proliferate in the Mediterranean maquis.
It has a similar alcohol content to limoncello (around 30%) and is found in dark (a deep ruby-red/purple) and less commonly, ‘white’ or colorless versions. Also like limoncello, it’s best served cold.
Good To Know: Pastry chefs on the island use mirto in a typical Sardinian sweet called gueffus, small morsels of almond paste dipped in granulated sugar and wrapped like candy in colored tissue paper.
Nocino is a wonderful walnut liqueur that’s thick, sweet, and syrupy with a slightly bitter hint. It comes from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and is made with unripe (green) walnuts.
Nocino is normally around 40 % ABV and other aromatics like vanilla, cloves and coffee beans can be added to the recipe.
Good To Know: Nocino is delicious poured over gelato!
Strega in Italian means ‘witch’ and it was created in Benevento in the South of Italy, not far from Naples. The name supposedly evokes an old legend that Benevento was the site of a witches’ rite. Witches from all around the world gathered around a walnut tree to create their magic potion.
Strega is made from around 70 herbs and botanicals and its bright yellow color comes from saffron. Nowadays, rather than being drunk alone it’s more often used in mixology. It is also used to flavor chocolates and in torrone (nougat).
Good To Know: Strega sponsors one of Italy’s most prestigious literary prizes – the Premio Strega.
If you frequented cocktail bars or nightclubs in the ‘90s, you’ve definitely seen this distinctive, elegant, slender bottle of yellow liqueur. Galliano was created in Tuscany at the end of the 19th century and was named after an Italian army officer and war hero, Giuseppe Galliano.
As well as anise and juniper, Galliano’s recipe includes lavender, cinnamon, and a distinctive note of vanilla. Rather than being drunk alone it’s now mainly used for cocktails, including international favorites like the Harvey Wallbanger, the Golden Cadillac, and the Italian Stinger.
Another popular Italian after-dinner drink and cocktail base, amaretto is a sweet liqueur with an overwhelming almond flavor. It is often known as Amaretto di Saronno (Saronno is the town in Lombardy, northern Italy, where it originated).
Amaretto is made from bitter almonds or apricot or peach kernels in infusion. These do contain cyanide, but a combination of pre-treatment and the alcohol itself makes sure that the hydrogen cyanide doesn’t find its way into the drink!
A mountain digestivo with ancient origins, genepì is found in the Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta regions of northern Italy. Genepì is both the name of the liqueur and the plant that is its main ingredient (mugwort or wormwood in English). The plant is protected and there are strict limitations on harvesting it.
Fun Fact: Both male and female genepì plants produce flowers, but only male flowers are used in the liqueur.
Genepì is definitely herbal and is also supposedly soothing, curative and stimulating! It is a very pure product with no artificial additives or colors.
Other Common After Dinner Drinks in Italy
Other types of Italian after-dinner drinks are sweet or fortified wines. Perhaps they’re not strictly ‘after dinner,’ as they are often consumed with dessert. But, they can be drunk alone after dessert (or even instead of a dessert if you want something sweet).
Passito is a sweet wine made from grapes that have been partially dried (the name comes from the verb appassire – to dry out in Italian), either on the vine or after harvesting. As the grape dries, the sugars concentrate.
White grapes are usually used – often the most aromatic, like Malvasia, but they can also be made from Chardonnay and Riesling, or red grapes like Pinot Noir and Merlot.
Passito wines are usually rich gold to deep amber in color. A large amount of grapes is needed to produce them, which is why they are relatively expensive. Some of the most famous Italian passiti are Picolit (from northern Italy’s Friuli region), Passito di Pantelleria (from an island in the Strait of Sicily), Albana (from Emilia-Romagna) and Sciacchetrà (from Liguria’s Cinque Terre).
Good To Know: Passito also pairs well with rich blue cheese.
Literally ‘Holy Wine,’ vin santo uses the same process as passito – grapes are dried on mats to concentrate the sugars. Vin santo is most commonly associated with Tuscany and is usually served with cantuccini, little almond cookies that are dipped into the wine.
Marsala is both the name of a town in western Sicily and the name of its famous fortified wine. Marsala is made only with grape varietals from Sicily. It is fortified with brandy or a neutral grape spirit and the cooked grape must (mosto cotto) gives it a distinctive dark color.
High-quality Marsala is perfect for sipping, like sherry, while lower-quality Marsala is often used in cooking, especially to bring depth and flavor to sauces.
Asti Spumante is a lowish-alcohol, sweet sparkling white wine. It’s produced using the Moscato grape (one of the world’s oldest grape varietals) in the Piedmont region of Italy around the town of Asti.
A good Asti Spumante has notes of honeysuckle, pear, and peaches. It’s perfect for accompanying a cake or any other dessert.
How to Order a Digestivo in Italy
Usually, after your coffee, a waiter will come and ask if you’d like a digestivo. If you are very lucky (and especially if the restaurant owner makes his own) you might even find a bottle of something being left on the table (but remember, you’re not supposed to drink it all!).
It used to be common for the digestivo to be offered free at the end of a meal, but now with the cost of living being high and restaurants making a big mark up on spirits and liqueurs, you’ll most likely have to pay.
If you aren’t offered a digestivo but you want to try one you can say:
|Posso avere un amaro?||Can I have an amaro?|
|Posso avere una grappa?||Can I have a grappa?|
|Posso avere un….?||Can I have a (your drink of choice)?|
You’ll usually be asked which brand of grappa or amaro you want as there are countless different ones, unless there’s something particularly local (qualcosa della zona).
And for the grappa you might be asked if you want ‘una grappa gialla?’ (i.e. a yellow and therefore barrel-aged grappa).
Good To Know: The blood alcohol limit in Italy is a very low 0.5 g/l (with zero tolerance for newly-licensed drivers or drivers under 21), so a digestivo will most probably put you over the limit. Take a taxi or have a designated driver!
What’s the Difference Between Aperitivo and Digestivo?
An aperitivo is something you have before a meal, while a digestivo is something you have after it.
You may want to read about
Aperitivo – Italian Aperitif
Stuzzicchini – Italy’s Appetizers
Can I bring digestivi home as a souvenir?|
You can definitely take digestivi home as a souvenir, but you’ll probably find that that bottle limoncello tasted so much better when you were sipping it under a Bougainville-covered terrace in front of the sea on the Amalfi Coast.