Beretta senior bartender Adam Wilson had a trick in his Vegas days, back when he managed the bar program for Mario Batali's three Sin City restaurants. Batali had a monstrous pork chop on the menu, a portion so large that diners would often put their forks down and declare surrender halfway through. Then Wilson would bring them an amaro, an Italian herbal liqueur, cover their half-eaten pork chop, and tell them to wait for a bit. "15 minutes later their appetite would be back," he says, with unmistakable glee in his voice.
This was no accident: Amaros are Italian digestifs designed to be sipped after a long meal, like an alcoholic Pepto Bismol, or even consumed pre-dinner to stimulate the appetite. They're made by infusing a simple alcohol with herbs, citrus, roots, bark, and other mystery ingredients (each brand's recipe is a closely guarded secret; it's the kind of thing that only like two people in the world know). Fernet, San Francisco's beloved bitter spirit, is one of them; so is Campari, artichoke-based Cynar, Aperol, and dozens more that you probably haven't heard of. You can drink them straight, or with a little seltzer water, or you can order them in a cocktail like a negroni (equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth).
Wilson is an amaro scholar of sorts -- he sent over a five-page document that he once made outlining the history of the spirit and the characteristics of several popular amaros -- but he's also a skilled bartender, and uses the bitter digestifs in many of his drinks at Beretta. There's the Il Gatano, which made the restaurant the biggest account for Nonino Amaro in the country, but my favorite is the Maserati, a smooth, well-balanced drink made with Cynar, grapefruit juice, Angostura bitters, simple syrup, and soda water. Despite having a lot of bitter things in it, the cocktail isn't overwhelmingly so; it's a refreshing pre-dinner drink that makes you feel positively Continental.
It's been slow to gain leverage in the States, but other bars are getting into the amaro game. Locanda, the Roman restaurant a few blocks up Valencia from Beretta, has a few drinks with amaros, including the Palomma, which adds another bitter layer to the tequila-and-grapefruit Mexican favorite. Local Edition, the newspaper-themed bar from the Bourbon & Branch folks, has The Brass Check (bourbon, Cynar, grapefruit, lemon, and maple syrup), a drink on the sweeter side of bitter. Hakkasan is making an insane negroni infused with smoke before your very eyes -- it was too much on the smoky side, but the showmanship is unparalleled. And then there's the old industry favorite, a shot of Fernet, which can be obtained at almost any bar in San Francisco.
One word of caution: Bitter cocktails have bitter hangovers, a lesson I recently learned the hard way. They're at their best for their original purpose -- stimulating the appetite. Get drunk on them at your own peril.