It had been a simple but splendid dinner: three courses of fresh fish, all pulled from the Mediterranean hours earlier, then grilled to perfection and served with baby vegetables and a crisp white wine. Next came red wine, ripe fruit and riper cheese. My wife and I gazed at the sea, convinced that the Amalfi Coast was as glorious as everyone said it would be.
"Would you care for a digestivo?" our waiter asked. He handed me a glass of liquid as transparent as the evening air and said, "Please, you must be our guest." Thirteen years later, I can still remember the exhilarating, exotic sensation of that first sip of my first grappa--and the dozen or so sips that followed. It was clear and clean, simultaneously burning and soothing.
I've been a grappa devotee ever since, and I've taken an almost proprietary delight in its growing popularity. Grappa originated in northern Italy, where it has been distilled commercially for more than 200 years; it's made from fermented vinaccia, the skins and seeds left over from the winemaking process. Historically, it has been a drink for farmers and other countryfolk in the foothills of the Alps and the broad plains below them, north of Venice, where the weather is cold and the work is hard. Mornings there often begin with a corretto, an espresso that has been "corrected" by the infusion of a shot of grappa. In the evening, grappa serves as social lubricant and internal heating system. Traditional grappas are still plentiful in Italy, many of them as harsh and smoky as bootleg whiskey and virtually all of them with the modest price tags you'd expect on agricultural leftovers. But grappa has moved beyond its parochial beginnings.