I remember my grandfather making grappa when I was a teenager. Grappa is an Italian brandy distilled from pressed, fermented grape pomace (skins, pulp, stems) that contains 35 to 60 percent alcohol by volume (70 to 120 U.S. proof). One day, he gave me a taste. I coughed violently as it burned from my lips to my throat to my innards. My older cousins laughed hysterically. “Acqua di fuoco,” they called it, which means, “Fire water.” Years later, I encountered grappa again, this time from the impressive collection of the late Lorenzo Petroni at his North Beach Restaurant. We drank it straight, and just like my grandfather’s homemade hooch, it burned like acqua di fuoco. So when I was invited to check out the new beverage menu at Delarosa featuring grappa and amaro (a bittersweet Italian digestif infused with herbs, flowers and spices), I must admit I was hesitant.
Nora Furst, cocktail designer for restaurants in Adriano Paganini’s empire including Lolinda and their latest, Belga, stood behind the bar cheerfully shaking one of her concoctions as I took a seat. First up: The Zucca High Ball (zucca rabarbaro, scotch, lemon, soda, cucumber). Zucca is an amaro imbued with rhubarb root, cardamom seeds, bitter orange peel, and other herbs. The lemon and soda added lightness and acidity, the clean scent of the cucumber slice (balanced atop the glass on a spear) wafted gently, while the scotch mirrored the smoky finish of the zucca.
For the Miele Julep, Furst drizzled honey grappa, lemon, and amaro nonino over crushed ice with a sprig of fresh mint. Nonino is a lighter amaro redolent with caramelized sugar, orange, licorice, saffron, and tamarind. It reminded me of an adult snow cone, and I can imagine relaxing in the sun with one (or two or three) on Delarosa’s sidewalk patio. I also loved the Loophole — Old Tom gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, Casey Jones IPA, and aperol (an Italian aperitif that blends bitter orange and an array of herbs and roots). I’m usually not a fan of gin, but Old Tom, hand distilled to a family recipe from the 1870s, has a softer, smoother profile than most and plays well with the herbaceousness of the aperol and the creaminess of the egg whites.
Through Furst’s fine palate and skills, I discovered acqua di fuoco and its bracingly potent pal amaro can add depth and flavor to these refreshing drinks, making them perfect for sipping during lunch or brunch, or after dinner.
Delarosa: 2175 Chestnut Street (near Steiner), 415-673-7100, delarosasf.com; daily 11:30 a.m.—1 a.m., weekend brunch until 4 p.m.