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How to Drink Amaro Nostrano with Luca Di Vita

206 Luca Nostrano

It wouldn’t be fair to say I have a favorite restaurant in Venice, but my guest today runs the one spot that is nearest to my heart. Now he’s not only wowing them with his world-class Venetian cuisine but he’s created an amaro that makes the gondoliers sing.

I’m not the only one who Luca di Vita has welcomed into Alla Testiere, the wonderful restaurant he owns with chef Bruno Gavagnin. London’s Russell Norman of Trattoria Brutto, a former Lush Lifer,  is also a dear friend and colleague. Out of this friendship, Amaro Nostrano was born

And one sip of an amaro that is a tribute to Venice and its lagoon is all I needed to love it, but it seems I am not alone. To bastardize John Ruskin’s quote, “Venice is now  – a splendor of one amaro.”

During my stay in Venice, I was thrilled to sit down with my friend Luca to hear how and why Nostrano came to be.

Our cocktail of the week: The Bacan

The mix of Amaro Nostrano, Gin and Tonic make this cocktail the perfect mix of Venice and London!
Check out this recipe
Nostrano Bacan

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Luca. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!

Luca: My name is Luca Di Vita. I was born and grew up in Venice and work and live in Venice. I own a very small restaurant called Alla Testiere for more than 25 years. It’s a long time. It’s a very, very, very small restaurant with only 10 tables in the heart of the city. We are always very, very, very busy. Luckily, being Venetian, we’ve grown in this beautiful place that is very peculiar, very different.  

I’ve been collecting a lot of friends and I’ve met so many people from all around the world. One of them is my sincere and beautiful friendship with Russell Norman from London. He’s the founder of Polpo Restaurant and recently another new restaurant called Brutto.  

Susan: The restaurant that you opened. Why did you want to even open a restaurant? Were you interested in flavors, cooking? What was the concept or idea of why you wanted to open up Alla Testiere?

Luca: Alla Testiere is, in fact, a classic Venetian restaurant, compared to all this going on in the world, from the point of view of the cuisine. We are serving just the freshest of the fish market every single day with a touch of the most classic cuisine, unexpected cuisine in a Venetian cuisine, which has the Asian touch. That always sounds very, very modern, but in our case, it has been there since the Renaissance. So they are classic ingredients, like all spices or herbs, and we play a little bit. We let the chef play in the kitchen with some perfumes, but just offer very few of the freshest fish dishes every single day.  

Susan: Why did you want to open a restaurant? Was it something young that you wanted to do?  

Luca: Okay. No, it wasn’t a dream when I was a child. My dream was the wine business and the wine market and the wine world. So I became sommelier when I was very, very young. Then I followed this career as a professional sommelier. I’m a member of some judging panels in Vinitaly and this passion for food was there too, but my real big, big, big love was wine.  

When I met Bruno, who’s my chef and my actual partner we were together in the army. So we met a very, very long time ago. He was working as a chef, as a cuoco, as a cook in some Venetian restaurant. We talked many times about the possibility to do something together. He was very knowledgeable in the kitchen. I had my knowledge in the wine business. In the meantime, I started to work for hotel chains and I was working in the hotel business for many years. I also had this kind of talent to welcome customers. Yeah, everything happened by chance.  

By chance, I met Bruno. I said I found a place around here. I met him right in the front of the shop, right in the front of the restaurant one night. And I said, I found something here and I’m planning to do this. What do you think? What are you doing? I was almost leaving for Japan to open a travel agency for my company.   I said, “Come on. I love the idea.” I tried to find out if it was a small place, a big place? Is it very small? It was very, very secret on the information.  

I say, “Okay, let let’s, let’s talk about it.” One week later, we started the whole thing. We emptied this place. It was full of old furniture and things. The name before was Da Mario because Mario was there. So we had to change the name of the place. The antique men who were helping us clean the place said, “Hey, why don’t you use this headboards there to do something? They are beautiful. They are from the 30’s and they certainly have some value. Don’t throw them away.”  

So, we had this idea to hang them on the wall and use them to hang bottles. When the headboards were on the wall, the name was there. We didn’t know anything special and then we started. We started with a lot of Venetian people. The one person who was working in the kitchen before there, he’s still working for us. We have at moment seven people working for us and three of them are with us from the first day.  

Susan: That’s incredible.  

Luca: Since May 1994.  

Susan: That’s amazing. You were telling me that one of the people that you met was Russell Norman.

Luca: Many people from England, they discovered this place and Russell Norman loved it so much. He’s a big lover of Venice. He got so many influences from Venice that he couldn’t resist, so he started to plan this opening of Polpo restaurant. I mean to move Venice to London! He started to feed the Londoners with some proper Venetian, I mean real Venetian food. And yeah, he’s with us.  

I mean, he’s a friend since the very beginning, more than 20 years and we did so many things together and we’ve been cooking there. He’s been cooking here. We’ve been doing something on boats. We’ve been really having fun working together. This is a little bit the birth of Amaro Nostrano. Because one day when we had one of our usual lunches, with a very big table in which Russell invites all his friends. We have a chef coming. We have people from this business and I said, “Russell, we need to do something to celebrate our friendship, but something that we can share with some other people, as well.” And he said, “Oh, lovely. Yeah, let’s do that.”  

What? Something that everybody will have the possibility to enjoy and think and love it. Which is the loveliest and most intense moment of a dinner? It’s the after dinner. So I said, “Let’s do it an amaro. Let’s do something when you finish your everything, when everything is gone, when comments about food, the white wines has gone, it’s there.”  

Let’s do an amaro, an amaro that will marry Venice and London because your love is here, but you have something to say from London. The result was I started to inquire to some producers, liquor producers, how to make it. They send me down to Trieste which has a very, very long historical tradition of liquors and so many liquori uffici and is also in the middle of a very commercial area. It was like a place where a lot of commerce and influences from other countries, from the Middle East were already happening. So I went to Trieste and met these people. I told them about this project and they immediately fell in love with the idea of doing the first liquor of the Venice lagoon.  

What I really don’t normally like about Amari in general in Italy is that they are normally too intense and sweet, which is a big contradiction. Come se dice in inglese. How do you say can traditionally? You know, they are called Amari bitter, but they are sweet. So I said that I wanted to do an amaro, but I didn’t want to make it sweet.   I wanted to do it amaro, if it was possible, even salty because of Venice, because where I wanted to do something that really would try to reproduce as much as we could the taste of Venice. I must admit I saw their faces and they were really excited and we immediately started to work.  

Susan: Other than salty, did you have any other ideas of ingredients that you were thinking that you wanted in it?  

Luca: The natural ingredients of the lagoon are normally already often in our dishes. So I was thinking wormwood, which is Santonico or Absinthe, Marine Absinthe, Salicornia or Samphire. Salted water that we use quite often in our sauces and it’s already inside all mollusks from the lagoon, clams, all kind of mussels, crabs, these kind of things. They have a very special taste because of the very special taste of the salted water of the Adriatic,  especially when the water in the lagoon is quite shallow. You have a big concentration of salt and fish and the fauna that lives in this kind of place get a lot of the taste, this ambiance of where they live.  

But salt is the point of the whole story. So then let’s make a proper, amaro style, like something will be good for you as well so you would feel well. In my opinion, an Amaro is more like in the 1800s used pharmaceutically, for helping people who’s are having health problems. So let’s put in these things, some essential oils or whatever. I mean, I tell them this is your job. I’d say, “I don’t know what to put in that will make the amaro healthy.” The only thing I said is that I want to do something very natural. I don’t want any chemicals in it.  

Often you see this terrible word on the Amari bottle called aroma. When you see this word aroma, aroma naturale, it’s even worse! There’s no natural aroma. There’s no aroma which is not chemical. So I don’t want aromas, I want infusions. I want as natural as you might make it at home for yourself.   Russell joined me. He came to London, he came to Trieste, sorry and we went to together to explain the whole project. And then, he would be back when we would have something to taste. I had been working for six months, up and down to Trieste. Every time we used to go there, we had about 10 examples which we would taste every time. I would cut seven out and keep three for the next time. They would get 10 again, I would cut seven, three would be kept and then again.  

They tried to put in it so many things, but always natural infusions. In Italian, they’re called alcolatti. I have no idea how they are called in English. They are distilled infusions. We met the people who make the infusions using natural products who were also in Friuli. So I was checking all the sources of each single ingredient. We’ve been selecting the right juniper, the right materials for every single aroma, I mean, every single taste, sorry, in the liquor, choosing the best and the most natural.   S

o in the end, at the very end, I called Russell. I said, “I think we are on that way.” He came to Trieste and it was a very, very, very rainy day, so bad that something special was happening that day, for sure. We couldn’t see 10, 20 meters ahead and we got there and we got this final five. We tasted and asked them to add a little bit, to take off a little bit. Make it a little bit more of this, a little bit more of that.   In the end, the balance was, I think, I hope the very best one.

There was a nice taste of Venice and its ingredients, plus a little part citrusy and a freshness that was made, a balsamic that tasting like the healthy work of the amaro. And then a very pure aroma, taste, perfume of gin, which was the London experience in it.  

Susan: You had to have Russell in it somewhere: the lagoon, plus a little bit of London.  

Luca: The main thing was that we were extremely very happy and we hugged each other very strongly and said, “Okay, here we are and Nostrano was born.”  

Susan: How about the bottle and the label, things like that. Did you already have an idea of what you wanted?  

Luca: We had been working with these people from Trieste for a while and something very fun that happened doing all my trials was that we began to relax. You know, I mean tasting can be a little stressful, if you’re not doing something else, not if you’re just tasting other things. So, in the meantime, we’ve been playing with other ingredients and we discovered tonic water, lemons, different kind of drinks. We discovered that keeping Nostrano only 27% ABV was the key to using Nostrano also to make cocktails and to use it properly as a liquor, not only like an amaro.  

So Nostrano has this double feature, a double face that it is an Amaro digestivo or you can use it for a cocktail ingredient for a cocktail. The key that I learned from them, because they are the experts was to keep it not too heavy in alcohol.  

Susan: How about the bottle?  

Luca:  The bottle. We had a huge offering, obviously, of different bottles We decided on our bottle, called Regina because it’s very much like a Cuban rum bottle. We love the size. I have very small hands and I didn’t like to see in my hands this big and long thing. I thought that also it’s very easy to handle. Okay. Something that you can use and handle very well without dropping it. Even for bartenders who need something easy to hold. So this seems to be the right size for it.  

The label’s first edition had all our names on it and said things like “please share,” “everybody needs to be member of this club,” etc. Now the label is a little bit more, we say in Italian, riconducibile, it means that it brings you to the place where everything started. So it has a lovely drawing from an artist quite known in Italy from the lagoon. It has all the ingredients, and everything the law makes you put on it. It has a many indications, many suggestions on how to drink it.  

Susan: One more very important thing we can’t forget. The name – how did you come up with the name, then we’ll talk about how to drink it.  

Luca: Okay, I tell you that Nostrano is our Plan B. We had the list of names, obviously. I made my list and Russell made his list. Nostrano was the top of his list. And in Italy, Nostrano reminds you immediately of two things in Italian. The first is a very good cigar.  

It’s called Nostrano del Brenta or in general Salami in Italian. The word Nostrano is very general and it doesn’t give you exactly the right meaning.  Apparently in English it works much better and it brings you to something local, something that’s ours, something that we made, but not for us. My first idea, the Plan A was different. It was Nostramaro that means Nostramaro, our amaro, but unfortunately, it was already registered.  

Susan: Oh no Nostra….  

Luca: Nostramaro.  

Susan: It is easier to say Nostrano for one who is not Italian. I have to admit it.  

Luca: Nostramaro instead sounds like a little gioca di parole (word play).  

Susan: So when an Italian hears the word Nostrano do they automatically think…

Luca: Nostrano, it’s basically ours made in our territory , but those two things I mentioned before are very popular. So now Nostrano needs to climb a little bit on its notoriety, needs to become famous, like the Brenta cigar. The Brenta cigar has been there for hundreds of years. So we need a little time.  

Susan: And look, you had to give Russell something, right? It was his top plan. Right.  

Luca: He was very happy that my name wasn’t workable, but now I’m very happy with it. I needed a little time to digest it, but now I’m very happy.  

Susan: Good!  Now you were talking about drinking it. Did you have an idea of how you wanted it to be drunk? You know, did you want to always serve it after your guests ate dinner and then someone said, “Oh, wait, it could be in a cocktail.” I mean, tell me your journey about how you wanted it then and maybe how you decided to change it.  

Luca: In the very beginning it was there and it was doing its job as an amaro. So it was there even on the list of the restaurant, taking his amaro place. But then we thought about all these trials we made and that thought was reminding us of something we drank before. In the meantime, we didn’t know exactly how to use it. So we started with something very simple, that is still on the list and still very appreciated, which is a Gin & Tonic, a good Gin & Tonic that I called the Bacan.  

The Bacan is the name of a little Venetian beach that comes and then disappears in the middle of the lagoon with the tide. Where all Venetians go with their own boat. Just adding some tonic water to Nostrano and a little bit more of gin, this is very, very popular in summer. I’ve seen so many bars serving it in Venice, so many places, and people love it.  

Then we started to do something a little bit more intense. A bunch of bartenders were using it and sending me their recipes. It’s been really beautiful. The combinations, most classic, with the liquors to make Americano, to make Negroni, to make a Spritz which is the drink of Venice.  

Susan: I actually was going to ask you, did you think of a Spritz, that was going to be my next question because we are in Spritz land.

Luca: This was what so often happens. I didn’t think of it, but Russell in London immediately started with these Nostrano Spritz in London in his place. And now he has two Spritzes and I think a Negroni. He came here and we did a presentation on this beautiful wooden boat and had beautiful food. We had the idea that Nostrano could be, in the middle of summer,  taking the place of Pimm’s.  

You know how you drink Pimm’s in London with some fruits in carafe?  That was really beautiful and so it’s has been added in the summer to our cocktail list.  So it’s an education from wine to amaro to now cocktails. All been very new, exciting and to be surrounded by people who really know what they are doing and often it’s what they really like.

We really keep ourselves open to experiences and ideas.   If anybody invents something and publishes it or whatever, can send us their ideas how they use Nostrano – then they are part of the Nostrano world.  

Susan: So I know that everyone in England, or in London, can have it because they can go to Trattoria Brutto, but any plans to it anywhere else in the world?  

Luca:  We already have distribution in France. It’s quite well distributed in north of Italy. Very, very soon, I don’t know when this is going to be, but near the Carnavale this year Nostrano launch its own website with its own e-commerce and we will be a little bit more social. We’ve been very unsocial until now. We’ve been very closed, a little bit like only friends, but now it’s the moment to make it more popular.   We found one importer in the States in California for the moment. We are doing a presentation in Belgium this summer. It’s fun. It’s like a new baby, you know, to take around by hand like this and introduce to some beautiful people.  

Susan: Well, as much as I love a cocktail.  to me Nostrano, the fun of having Nostrano is after I’ve had  a meal at Alla Testiere, I must admit!  For all, for everyone to be able to come to Venice enjoy first a meal and then a Nostrano. That’s the grand che as you say! Then they can have a Nostrano cocktail.  

Luca: Certo, they will find all the recipes on the website, so they can play. And I’m always at their disposal. If they need a little help, they can just send me an email. I will help them with real passion and love.  

Susan: Thank you so much for being here.  

Luca: Thank you so much.

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