The Spirit of Italy is a group of Italian liquor producers made up of Amaro Lucano, Cocchi, Luxardo, Distillerie Moccia, Distilleria Nardini, Pallini, Toschi and Distilleria Varnelli. They feature a diverse selection of high quality Italian liquors, some of which have been made by these families for more than 200 years. Recently Quartino hosted six family representatives for a multi-course dinner and tasting of these high-quality, iconic spirits.
I ended up sitting with representatives of Luxardo and Distilleria Nardini , along with host Camper English. Both men were full of hilarious stories and stretched out the evening long after most diners had left. A few remaining food and drink critics were “held hostage” with shots of grappa and limoncello in what turned out to be the most entertaining evening of my tenure at The Chicago Traveler.
Quartino: a Lively River North Italian Restaurant
Quartino needs little introduction, but here’s a brief one if you’re not familiar with the restaurant. Accessibly located in River North at 626 N. State Street, Quartino is like the big city, older brother version to your favorite suburban Italian restaurant. It has that “old world” feel, but it’s quite a bit bigger, always packed, and very loud and vivacious. They serve classic Italian dishes in tapas (small plates) style. This is a great place to bring large groups, have a few drinks, and share some food.
Spirit of Italy Dinner & Drinks
The multi-course dinner featured highlights from Quartino’s menu paired with a different cocktail creation using liquor from the Spirit of Italy. At the end of the night, diners were able to try out the liquors on their own under the supervision of host and spirits writer Camper English.
Appetizer & Cocktails
As guests filed in to the upper floor at Quartino, bartenders were serving two cocktails while the tables were lined with a mouth-watering tray of salumi and cheeses. The first I sampled was the Un Lucano, a Manhattan featuring Amaro Lucano– a bittersweet liquor made from 37 herbs that’s been in the Vena family since 1984. The Manhattan was more on the sweet side with just a touch of bitterness and complimented by a dash of lime.
Also being served was a Fragoli’ Spritz made from Fragoli Toschi—a spirit bottled with real strawberries—soda water, and Prosecco wine. This was a summery cocktail that was zesty and not overly sweet despite the strong fruit flavor. I could have easily tossed back a few more of these had there not been a full night of cocktails ahead of me.
Gnocchi & Barnard
The first main course was a serving of gnocchi in an arugula pesto: a little soft, a little chewy with the arugula sauce acting as a nice change up from the typical gnocchi and tomato sauce combination. The drink was the Barnard, made with Amaro Nardini, mint leaves, and Ginger Ale. Amaro Nardini is a “smooth digestive liqueur” with an herbal and fruity taste. The ginger and mint tastes were strongest in the cocktail, though altogether this a light and refreshing drink.
I ended up sitting by Antonio Guarda Nardini, a very well-dressed and funny man constantly cracking jokes and telling crazy stories during the dinner. He also brought along a bottle of his family’s signature Aquavite Di Vinaccia Grappa, a drink that’s been in the family since shortly after the formation of the United States.
To my inexperienced palette, Grappa is a little like vodka without the serious burn. It starts light, smooth, and dry before hitting you with a serious intensity that doesn’t linger too much. Antonio let us know that before drinking a Grappa you want to put a little on your hand and rub it to bring out the smell. Since Grappa is made from grapes you want to make sure it has a fruity smell, but if those grapes were left out too long it may smell like mold and that’s a sign of a bad Grappa.
Cavatelli & Morlacco Julep
Next up was another pasta course of longer cavatelli noodles in a tomato sauce topped with fresh basil and ricotta: simple and very tasty.
Paired with this course was a drink courtesy of another table mate Matteo Luxardo. Founded in 1821, the Luxardo family’s specialty is Maraschino Luxardo. This is a liquor made from distilling marasca cherries, a sour-type of cherry grown exclusively by the Luxardo family, which is then matured for two years in Finnish ash vats.
The Morlacco Julep emphasized the cherry liquor above the fresh mint and brandy. What was most interesting is the sour cherry provides a rich cherry taste like you’re actually biting into a cherry rather than the artificially sweet taste you get in most fruity cocktails.
Salmon & the Alchemist
Spirit of Italy at Quartino salmon plateMoving into the first of two meat courses, the Salmon was tender and flaky. While I go back and forth about my personal opinions toward salmon, I liked how the fish taste was balanced out by the sweetness of the grape tomatoes and saltiness of the olives served on the plate.
Served with this dish was the Alchemist, featuring Amaro dell’Erborista Varnelli. Distilleria Varnelli was founded in 1868 and specializes in a dry anise. The Alchemist cocktail looks quite complicated with mentions of orange rooibos tea, mexacal brown sugar syrup, and sherry, but was too bitter for my tastes and seemed too intense paired with the salmon.
Farmhouse Chicken & Amalfi Mule
Following the salmon, Quartino brought out their farmhouse chicken. It was juicy and full of flavor. Paired with the chicken was surprisingly spicy broccoli raab, sweet tomatoes, and a cheese-encrusted cauliflower. This course had the most flavor complexity of the evening and was definitely the highlight for me.
Also the highlight of the night was the Amalfi Mule featuring the famous Pallini limoncello, the best selling premium limoncello in the United States, made from a 100 year old recipe. The Amalfi Mule blended limoncello with lemon juice, strawberry, basil, and ginger beer. It was fruity, just a little bitter, and full of fizzy liveliness from the ginger beer. What was also cool was the drink was served in a Pallini-branded copper-colored mug.
Dessert & Tasting
After dinner, there was an opportunity to try out the liquors, minus the cocktails, and peruse a dessert buffet. The best of the latter was the Zeppole, which are like these fried Italian doughnut balls topped with chocolate. At this point, the evening got a bit hazy and concluded with drinking more grappa and limoncello with Antonio Guardini and a few remaining food critics– and a conversation that ranged from elderly cowboys to battery acid. Needless to say, this was a dinner I won’t soon forget.