Spiritual Peril

One of my first recollections of grappa dates back more than thirty years. My wife and I joined a friend and her husband for dinner down in Villa Verucchio, at a place called Casa Zanni. One part butcher shop, nine parts restaurant, Zanni is known for its meats. That night, after warming up with tagliatelle al ragu, we probably had a mixed grill: castrato, which is a cut of young lamb, pork ribs, and sausage.

At the end of the meal Fiorenzo said he would like a digestivo, a “grappina,” a little grappa. The Italian diminutive makes just about anything seem attractive. I pictured a small glass, maybe the size of a thimble. Bring one for me too, I told the waiter.

Picture a water glass half full. Inside it, at room temperature, a thin, flammable solution. All right, I thought. I can at least drink a thimble-ful. Yes, it burned. No, it did not aid in digestion. I had a few more sips and left most of it in the glass.

I’ve come to think of such drinks as 3:00 a.m. beverages. You wake up at 3:00 a.m. with a rotten stomach and ask yourself, Why did I drink that? There’s peril in those spirits.

The local hooch around San Marino is called mistra, a dialect word pronounced me-STRAH. Like grappa it is a thin, flammable solution, flavored with anice. Think Sambuca, only better, unless you are partial to syrup. You can buy mistra with a label on the bottle, but the good stuff—yes, there is good stuff—is home-made. There are stills in the hills.

Mistra is good in coffee. You “correct” your espresso with a teaspoon or, if the coffee is very incorrect, with a tablespoon of mistra. The attraction is both gustatory and olfactory. Mistra improves the taste of the coffee, just a little; it also imbues the coffee with a fragrance that is heavenly. When my father-in-law added anice to his coffee (Arrow Anice, a decidedly rot-gut variety made in Detroit) he would wink at me and say, “Solo per odore.” Just for the scent of it.

Until 9/11 and the crackdown on taking liquids on planes that followed, we brought 1.5 liter bottles of the stuff home with us. When we needed a refill we would ask my wife’s aunt and uncle in San Marino, Who is your omino, their “little man,” meaning the guy who gets them the stuff. The aunt would make a call. A few days later we would have the bottle.

Back home a big bottle like that lasted a few years. It was an oddity we could bring out after dinner with friends, making for pleasant conversation and, unless you exercised restraint, the usual 3:00 a.m. disturbance.

Yesterday we had lunch in Sant’Arcangelo di Romagna, a hilltown twenty minutes from San Marino. At the end of the meal my wife asked for corrected espresso.

“Do you have mistra?” she asked.

Elton, our server, a rail thin local boy with an engaging smile, tilted his head and said, “What’s that?”

“Mistra,” my wife said. “Our local grappa.”

“Never heard of it.”

“You are young,” she said.

I’m still making friends with grappa and, in that spirit, I asked for a grappina.

“Bianca or barricata?” he asked.

Barricata is grappa that’s been aged in a barrel, in barrique, the French say. It’s caramel-colored, smoother than the clear stuff (bianca).

I went with the barricata. It went down just fine. I would not say it aided in digestion. It simply anesthetized my full stomach for a short while.

And then my stomach woke up, well before 3:00 a.m. and I experienced a mild case of spiritual regret.

But for a while, at the table and through part of the afternoon, it was definitely worth it.

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