A number of Philadelphia restaurants have become hands-on with their after-dinner digestivo game. There's the house nocino infused with unripe black walnuts at Cadence, the vermouths being made at Plenty Cafe, and even the "mosquito" shots of guava juice spiked with tequila offered as a parting kiss of Mexico at Blue Corn in the Italian Market.
You can now add to that list of must-sip digestivi the "Forte e Gentile" series of bittersweet spirits from Le Virtù, where manager Fred Cratil Jr. is having so much fun as the mix-master maestro that, he says, "I joke with everyone it took me 61 years to figure out I'm good at something!"
The "agrumi," flavored with five kinds of citrus, tastes like a more interesting limoncello. The "melograno" is tinted crimson and sour with pomegranate juice. "Menta e limone" is as vividly minty as it is a deep forest green, with the tang of lemon keeping it from simply being liquid breath freshener.
Cratil Jr. isn't distilling so much as he is infusing spirits or wine. "We're essentially making cocktails," he said. These cocktails take anywhere from 30 to 40 days to fully integrate the kinds of herbs, fruits, and roots he experienced while visiting friends in the Morrone mountain range of Abruzzo, where every grandmother, aunt, and relative has a bottle of acqua santa, the citrusy brew known as "holy water" because it's made with high-proof grain alcohol, which certainly qualifies it as more forte (strong) than gentile (gentle).
Either way, it's incredibly drinkable — at least, once your taste buds get past the initial shock of the herbal bitterness Europeans covet, and which Cratil Jr. indulges by adding even less sugar than most commercial versions. That's even true for the "genziana" made from Abruzzese gentian, a famously bitter root that gets steeped in Trebbiano wine. By the second and third sip, the root's bitter smack begins to recede into a soothing balm as the other notes float to the fore. After a feast of other authentic Abruzzese flavors — lamb skewers, rustic pastas, scripelle soup — the stomach magically begins to hum in tune.
– Craig LaBan